Our case, Sheena Simpson v New Hampshire School Administrative Unit 16, et al, filed on November 4th of 2021 was heard by a judge in Rockingham Superior Court on November 29th and 30th of this year. Whether you’ve heard of the “Exeter High School Student” suit or not over the past two years, its significance goes far beyond one student athlete’s suspension. It’s a matter of free speech, exercise of religion, and school overreach into students’ private lives, and, by extension, interfering with parental rights when it comes to raising their children.
Cornerstone filed the complaint in 2021 and has provided legal representation and support for the family throughout this protracted process. The case came from a private, off-campus text exchange over a contentious cultural issue that is at the heart of the case. The student’s real offense? He is a faithful Catholic who believes that there are two genders, male and female. The core facts of the case are not in dispute. M.P., the student in question, was talking to friends on the bus about the challenges of using non-gender specific pronouns in Spanish class. In the process, he asserted his belief that there are only two genders. Another student overheard the conversation, and chose to engage with M.P. on the topic. Later, the student initiated a text exchange with M.P. to again challenge him where he reaffirmed his views along with some frustration with the other student’s persistence in continuing to engage. This text exchange was turned in by the third student to Exeter High School to take action, ultimately resulting in M.P.’s athletic suspension and notations in his student record.
Although it argues otherwise, the school’s zeal in acting on private communication turned into the administration by another student raises the question of why they would feel the need to take action against this student in this particular circumstance (and why that third student felt their actions in sharing a private text exchange with the school were appropriate).
Exeter’s Gender Nonconforming Students policy adopted in 2016 provides some context and insight. Among more specific provisions such as a student “has the right to be addressed by a name and pronoun that corresponds to the student’s gender identity,” the policy includes broader language; “the intentional refusal to respect a student’s gender identity…is a violation of this policy.” Think about that for a moment. If a student expresses sincerely held beliefs that run counter to this policy, the school can single them out for punishment. This is in direct violation of Article 22 of the New Hampshire Bill of Rights, which protects every citizen’s right to free speech.
In court, the school has denied that they considered their Nonconforming Students Policy in deciding to punish M.P. for his off-campus text exchange. Instead they cite his use of language such as “bozo” and “stfu.” Imagine applying that standard to all student text communications. This was an exchange initiated and prolonged not by M.P. but another student who chose to engage and challenge him on his expressed beliefs. For his part, despite his frustration, M.P. did not go out of his way to harass or demean another student. He was guilty of expressing his sincerely held views privately on a provocative cultural issue. Although the school’s defense has strategically steered away from M.P.’s Catholic faith and their own policy, they have maintained their right to punish him for comments made off campus. They have done so despite the fact that the United States Supreme Court has definitely weighed in on that issue by ruling against a Pennsylvania high school that suspended a student for that very reason. In short, the Court ruled that school districts cannot extend their authority to regulate off-campus speech.
Schools are increasingly supplanting parents by inserting themselves into our student’s personal beliefs, how they express themselves, and even their very identities, not just on campus during school hours, but in what should be their private lives. Exeter’s Gender Nonconforming Students policy mirrors policies adopted by school districts across the state. The Rockingham Superior Court judge will be issuing his ruling any day. This is not just about a school’s decision to punish one student. It is about whether such policies can be used, even indirectly, to suppress the free speech rights of students who don’t share their school’s progressive agenda and attempt to force them into “right” thought and expression. This will be a decision that has implications far beyond Exeter’s school walls.
Image: EHS Entrance by Austin Blake Grant CC BY-SA 3.0