Portland – The ACLU has asked a federal court to block the suspension of a Cape Elizabeth High School student for bullying, after she posted a note in the bathroom about sexual assault at the school.

On Sunday, the ACLU filed a motion asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) to delay the suspension so that there could be a more deliberative process. The school agreed to delay the suspension, which was due to begin today, October 15, until the TRO hearing on October 21.

“The school is punishing A.M. for attempting to talk about an issue of real concern to herself and other students,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “More and more, young people are leading the way and calling on us all to have badly-needed conversations about difficult issues. Instead of trying to silence them, it is our responsibility as adults to give them a safe forum in which to be heard. Unfortunately, Cape Elizabeth administrators took a much different tack. The school’s decision to suspend A.M. will have a chilling effect on other students and make them hesitant to speak up about sexual assault, for fear of being punished.”

The ACLU argued that the notes left in the girls’ bathrooms by A.M. and other students did not target a specific student and did not constitute bullying. Rather, they were First Amendment-protected free speech, meant to start a conversation at the school about sexual assault. The ACLU called the pending suspension an inappropriate attempt to silence a student who was trying to start a conversation about important issues at the school.

The ACLU further argues that the school retaliated against A.M. for speaking to the media, in violation of the First Amendment. Administrators first met with her shortly after the notes were posted, to try to convince her to tell them who else was involved. Yet they waited three weeks – until just hours after a media article including comments from A.M. was published on the topic – to impose the suspension.

“We all know by now that students’ free speech rights don’t end at the schoolhouse gate,” said Emma Bond, staff attorney at the ACLU of Maine. “The anti-bullying law was meant as a shield to protect students who are being targeted and harassed. It was not meant to silence students speaking up about difficult topics.” 

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. One in five women are sexually assaulted on college campus, and more than 90 percent of them do not report their assault. Overall, nearly two thirds of sexual assaults go unreported to police.

“After decades of shaming and silencing victims of sexual assault, my generation is finally learning that it’s okay to speak up,” said A.M. “But if schools start punishing students for trying to have this conversation, it’s just going to force survivors back into the shadows. I hope administrators will change their mind about suspending me and instead use this as a chance to have a much-needed conversation with all of us.”

Case documents, including the ACLU’s legal brief and letter to Cape Elizabeth administrators, are here: https://www.aclumaine.org/en/cases/am-v-cape-elizabeth-school-district-et-al