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High Court Declines Student Speech Case

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear the appeal of a high school student who claimed that his free speech rights were infringed when administrators refused to let him return to school to address allegations that he had made a racially insensitive comment about another student.

Students at East Hampton High School, in New York state, believed that Daniel DeFabio, a 10th-grader at the school in the spring of 2004, had made the remark about a Hispanic student who had died in a motorcycle accident a few days earlier, court papers say. The purported comment was "one down, forty thousand to go."

Facing threats from other students, DeFabio was initially kept out of school for his own safety. The superintendent of the East Hampton Union Free School District later concluded that the student had made the comment. DeFabio was suspended for the rest of the school year and was not allowed to distribute a statement through school channels attesting to his innocence. He maintained that he did not originate the comment but had repeated it in the vein of "you would not believe the terrible thing I heard in the hallway," court papers say.

New York State's commissioner of education later overturned the superintendent's finding and annulled DeFabio's suspension. But the student never returned to East Hampton High. DeFabio and his mother sued the school district and officials, alleging that their actions violated his First Amendment free speech rights.

The DeFabios lost in both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City. Among other issues decided in favor of the defendants, the court said school officials had qualified immunity for their actions.

"Under the circumstances, ... it was reasonable for the [school officials] to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities were Daniel permitted to return to school to speak with his classmates about his version of what transpired," the 2nd Circuit said in its Oct. 13 opinion.

The Supreme Court declined without comment to hear the student's appeal in DeFabio v. East Hampton Union Free School District (Case No. 10-919).

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