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Supreme Court Declines Challenge to Kentucky Law on School Disruption

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take up a challenge to a Kentucky law that makes it a crime for anyone to direct speech or conduct to a school employee that disrupts or interferes with normal school activities.

The law was challenged by a graduate student named Johnathan Masters, who in 2014 got into an argument with a principal in the Cloverport Independent School District over the distribution of some surveys. The principal, Keith Haynes, asked Masters to leave school premises, upon which Masters called Haynes a profane name and suggested they step outside so Masters could "kick [Haynes's] ass," court papers say.

Masters was charged with a misdemeanor violation of a Kentucky law that says:

Whenever a teacher, classified employee, or school administrator is functioning in his capacity as an employee of a board of education of a public school system, it shall be unlawful for any person to direct speech or conduct toward the teacher, classified employee, or school administrator when such person knows or should know that the speech or conduct will disrupt or interfere with normal school activities or will nullify or undermine the good order and discipline of the school.

Masters challenged the law in a Kentucky trial court as punishing more behavior than necessary and chilling protected speech. But the trial court rejected his arguments, a jury found him guilty, and the judge fined him $500.

A midlevel Kentucky appellate court upheld Masters's conviction and the constitutionality of the statute under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"The statute does not seek to suppress expression, but rather attempts to preserve a suitable learning environment by curbing unreasonable, and potentially dangerous, disruptions to school operations," said the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which added that "a threat of physical force against a principal during the school day foreseeably triggers a safety protocol which disrupts the orderly function of the classroom."

The Kentucky Supreme Court declined to take up the case, and Masters filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court as a pauper.

At the high court, Masters received support in the form of a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Student Press Law Center and five other groups. The brief argued that 22 states have some variation of the Kentucky law, which it characterizes as "holdover from the discredited 'zero tolerance' movement in public schools."

The brief emphasizes the role such laws may be playing in the trend of criminalization of student misbehavior in schools.

"History demonstrates that, invariably, laws that enable school authorities to press criminal charges based on a subjective assessment of whether speech is 'disruptive' will be applied disproportionately against students of color, students with special needs, and students experiencing mental-health issues," the SPLC's brief said.

The brief also argued that the Kentucky law was inconsistent with the standard of when disruptive behavior in schools could be punished as set forth in the Supreme Court's landmark 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. That decision is approaching its 50th anniversary, on Feb. 24. (I'll have a report coming on the anniversary in a couple of days.)

But the justices will not be using the case of Masters v. Commonwealth of Kentucky (No. 18-7286) to further develop the law of student expression and discipline. The high court declined the appeal without comment.

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