Thanks to an early holiday gift from a federal judge, 15-year-old Isaac Imel and 16-year-old Cody Overbay will be among the students returning to Knightstown High School Thursday morning for the beginning of the school’s second semester.
Imel and Overbay are two of four KHS sophomores who were suspended in October and ultimately expelled for the remainder of the school year for their involvement in creating a video that school officials say threatened and defamed a local teacher. With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and a private attorney, the two students sued the Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation, alleging their rights of free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution were violated by the school’s discipline.
In addition to damages, court costs and attorney fees, Imel’s and Overbay’s lawyers asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction that would permit the students back in school while the case continues through the judicial process. At the conclusion of a hearing on Friday, Dec. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker (Southern District of Indiana) granted this request.
The students’ film, The Teddy Bear Master, is a 78-minute South Park-inspired parody of the late 1980s horror film The Puppet Master and was made on their own time away from school. A small number of scenes featured a teacher character who shares the same last name as a seventh-grade math teacher at Knightstown Intermediate School. In film, this character is ridiculed and physically assaulted by students who later save the teacher from evil possessed stuffed animals that have been ordered to kill him.
Although her ruling allows Imel and Overbay back in school for now, Barker made it clear she was no fan of the students’ film, calling it “vulgar and tasteless and humiliating.” She said, “It’s not a good movie, but that’s not the role of the court, to pick and choose movies.” Instead, she said her job was to determine whether the students’ First Amendment rights had been violated.
Noting that schools are not intended to be “monitors of good taste,” Barker said expulsions were not justified simply by school officials’ concern over “unpopular or distasteful art.” She said there must also be a showing of a “material and substantial disruption” of the school, adding, “That is what’s lacking here.”
“What we’re lacking here is facts to establish … that they caused through their actions a substantial disruption of the school’s ability to provide education to others,” Barker said. “I’m moved to say that, in some ways, the disruptions that were caused by the DVD were caused … as much by the school officials as the boys themselves.” She said the only disruption she perceived at the high school was that related to the principal’s investigation of the film, which she described as “simply a playing out of the administrative process.”
Barker also noted that the evidence had shown that Imel’s and Overbay’s participation in the film’s production had been minimal. She described their involvement as “small potatoes” and said they’d been “bit actors and the occasional cameraman.”
“It’s clear from the evidence that both of them played a pretty minor role in the production of this DVD,” Barker said. “They were not the prime movers with respect to this movie.”
Based on the evidence presented and her reading of the law, Barker said she was persuaded that Imel and Overbay had shown a reasonable likelihood that they will ultimately win their case when it proceeds to trial. She said her decision to issue the injunction was also supported by the public policy that favors the protection of First Amendment rights and by the fact that the irreparable harm the students would suffer if not allowed to return to school now outweighed any possible harm to the school.
“The greatest harm would come to these two young men if the expulsions carried through to the end of the school year,” Barker said.
After she announced her ruling, Barker addressed Imel and Overbay directly. “You’ve had to learn a lesson about the hardest way I can think of,” she told the students. Noting the expenditure of both financial and judicial resources, she said, “You’re not the only ones who have suffered consequences as the result of this. … All our actions have consequences.”
Barker said she hoped Imel and Overbay had learned from this incident how important the Constitution is, and the responsibilities that accompany the exercising of one’s constitutional rights. While she said the First Amendment doesn’t prohibit speech that is distasteful or unkind, she suggested that the students’ creativity could be put to more positive use.
“I think the judge’s ruling was absolutely appropriate in view of the evidence,” said Indianapolis attorney Mark Sullivan, Overbay’s legal counsel. While he said he hopes the school corporation now ends its legal efforts to uphold the expulsions, Sullivan said he is prepared to file a motion for summary judgment asking the court to issue a final ruling. “In light of the evidence already presented and how the judge ruled, I would expect that to be granted,” he said. When contacted last Friday, Robert Kelso, an attorney for the school corporation, declined to comment on Barker’s ruling or whether CAB is now prepared to settle the lawsuits.
While the students’ mothers are both happy with Barker’s ruling, Linda Imel and Robin Shepherd both expressed concern about the amount of school work their sons have missed. Both women said they think the school corporation should provide any tutorial assistance needed to get the students caught up.
“I definitely believe Isaac will require a tutor,” Linda Imel said. She said her son’s attorney, Jackie Suess of the ACLU of Indiana, is still waiting to hear back from the school’s attorneys to find out what kind of arrangements will be made for Isaac to complete the work missed since Oct. 12, the last day he was in school.
“They were out an entire nine weeks,” said Shepherd, Overbay’s mother. “Not only do they have to make up that nine weeks, but they also have to know what’s going on in their classes when they start back up after break.”
Linda Imel said she was glad that Barker took the time to point out to the students that consequences flow from their actions. “That’s something I’ve told Isaac for years,” she said. “No matter what you do, there’s always an outcome.”