Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Partner Address Hate Speech at California High School

 The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (“Lawyers’ Committee”), represented by Jones Day, recently requested permission from the court to file an amicus curiae, “friend of the court,” brief in the Northern District of California in the case of Shen et al.  v. Albany Unified School District et al.   The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) also signed on in support of the brief, which was filed on Friday.  The amicus brief addresses the pernicious impact of hate speech targeting people on the basis of race and gender on individuals and communities, particularly in the school setting.

The case involves an Instagram account created earlier this year by a handful of high school students in Albany, California. Postings to the account targeted students of color, most of whom were girls, and an African American staff member. The postings included pictures of nooses around the necks of one African American student and her African American basketball coach; images comparing African-American students to a gorilla; a black doll alongside images of a Ku Klux Klan member, a torch and a noose; and pictures showing the result of African American men being lynched and burned. A number of students that were following the Instagram page commented on and/or “liked” the images.

As the brief details, hate speech and cyber-hate can have a devastating effect on its targets, who may suffer physically and emotionally.  In these instances, schools are not only able to step in and take action, but may have a duty to do so under federal civil rights laws.

“Racist and sexist images targeting students can have a real and devastating impact on the physical and mental health of students at a time when they should be focusing on their education,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  “As we see an increase in hate spread through online platforms, schools must recognize the harm that cyber-hate can have on their students and school communities and take action to ensure that all students can learn in a safe environment free from discrimination.  These issues are especially important for African American and other minority students who are far too often the targets of harassment and bullying.”

Targets of cyber-hate, like the students in California, are more likely to report depression and are at risk of feeling isolated and withdrawn in school, therefore threatening their ability to learn and thrive.  They may also experience migraines and nightmares, and lose motivation.

After learning of the Instagram account, Albany High School officials took disciplinary action against the students involved in creating the account and the students who endorsed its images. Some of the students involved with the account then sued the school claiming, among other things, that the school’s actions violated their First Amendment rights.  The brief filed by the Lawyers’ Committee does not support either party in the case, but rather focuses on the harm caused by the circulation of racist and sexist images.

To read the full amicus brief, click here.

The Stop Hate Project

In partnership with the Communities Against Hate coalition, communitiesagainsthate.org, the Lawyers’ Committee’s Stop Hate Project seeks to strengthen the capacity of community leaders, law enforcement, and organizations around the country to combat hate by connecting these groups with established legal and social services resources.