A northern Nevada school principal is defending the suspensions of 12 students for posting pro-marijuana signs on campus, saying it caused a disruption for classmates and staff.
Carson Valley Middle School Principal Robert Been said the signs, including ones reading "Legalize Weed" and "Free the Weed," violated a policy requiring all signs to be approved by staff before being displayed.
The group hung nearly 30 signs at the Gardnerville school, about 50 miles south of Reno, after three classmates were taken into custody on suspicion of smoking marijuana next to campus on Nov. 9. Most signs urged authorities to "free" the trio.
The suspensions handed down to the 12 ninth-graders, first reported by the Record-Courier of Gardnerville, ranged from one day to five days.
"What they did is not a cool thing to do. It just stirs up the campus," Been told The Associated Press. "It's not conducive to our education environment. This is a school for crying out loud."
Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said he thinks the students' pro-marijuana message is what spurred the suspensions and the case raises "some serious" First Amendment concerns.
He said courts have ruled that students have First Amendment rights at school with certain restrictions, including on speech that advocates illegal activity or is disruptive.
Lichtenstein questioned whether the Gardnerville students really caused a disruption by posting the signs. They merely advocated for a change in marijuana laws, he maintained, and didn't encourage anyone to engage in illegal activity.
"Content-neutral policies are one thing, but there are indications the message itself played a role in this," Lichtenstein said. "What there was was messaging that went against what school officials wanted.
"There are a lot of questions concerning this and concerning the severity of the punishment. That raises some very significant questions as to the role the disapproved message played as opposed to simply putting up a sign that wasn't authorized," he added.
But Douglas County School District Superintendent Lisa Noonan defended school administrators. Students are entitled to opinions, she said, but they must express them in appropriate ways to avoid creating disturbances.
"The whole First Amendment issue has certain restrictions when coming through the front door," she told the Record-Courier. "This is what I call a disruption of the learning environment. We want an orderly environment."
Been said some of the students climbed garbage cans to hang signs on ceilings and walls.
"It's a huge disruption to the school environment and counter to what we are trying to do," he said.