A federal judge Thursday upheld his order allowing a La Puente high school senior to return to the campus where he was suspended for handing out fliers comparing his principal to Adolf Hitler.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge James Ideman came hours before Joe Neal was to participate in graduation ceremonies at Bassett High School.
“I am not, by any means, endorsing the conduct of this young man,” the judge said. “I don’t think he should be regarded as a hero. But there is a lot of conduct that is 1st Amendment-protected, that most of us think is quite repulsive and quite vulgar.”
Peter Eliasberg, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the ruling as a victory for free speech, saying it’s protected even when it’s offensive.
The ACLU sued on behalf of Neal, who was told he was being suspended for five days and probably would be expelled. He was escorted off campus and warned he would be arrested if he returned, according to the ACLU.
Neal, 17, gave out the fliers at his high school campus in response to cutbacks in the French program and other campus activities. In the fliers, Neal referred to Principal Linda Bouman as the Fuhrer and accused her of running a “quasi-fascist dictatorship,” comparing her leadership to “an underground, inhumane regime ready to take power. . . . Germany under Hitler, China under Mao and Bassett under Bouman!!”
School employee Brinder Austin on Thursday said Bouman wasn’t talking to the news media.
“I’ve always stood up for what I believed in, and that’s what I did this time,” Neal has said.
Neal was kicked out of school June 5, just days before finals and about six weeks after he and his friends handed out the fliers.
In a ruling Tuesday, the judge cited the 1st Amendment in ordering school administrators to rescind Neal’s suspension.
The judge blamed the district for a “public relations disaster” in its handling of the controversy. Although Ideman ruled out expulsion, he indicated that officials could consider less severe steps, such as including the flier in Neal’s school records.
School attorney Christine Wagner had argued that the federal court system doesn’t have jurisdiction over the school administrators and their policies.
District officials said the fliers were not free speech because they were threatening to the principal and violated school rules on publishing on campus.
Wagner said she did not know yet whether the school board would drop the matter.
Neal plans to attend the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico in the fall.