The high school senior at the heart of a campus free speech controversy in La Puente graduated Thursday just hours after school officials lost a final fight to expel him.
Joe Neal, who was suspended after he distributed fliers depicting the principal as a dictator, received a standing ovation from his Bassett High School classmates during the ceremony.
After receiving his diploma, Neal, 17, shook hands with Principal Linda Bouman, whom he had referred to as “fuehrer” in the leaflets. He had accused Bouman of making curriculum changes without consulting teachers. Some teachers at the graduation wore American flag stickers on their lapels as a sign of support for Neal.
The controversy erupted in April after Neal distributed about 100 fliers comparing Bouman’s administration to a string of notorious dictatorships.
Neal, who plans to attend Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, was suspended June 5. The action came after a dissident school board member awarded him a $200 scholarship.
Legal maneuvering left it unclear until hours before the evening ceremony whether Neal would graduate.
Thursday afternoon, the school district lost a last-ditch court bid to keep Neal from graduating so the district could proceed with an expulsion hearing.
But U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman barred expulsion, ruling that the fliers were protected by the right to express political opinions.
Ideman called the leaflets “extreme” and “out of line,” but protected by the U.S. Constitution.
“I’m not complimenting what Mr. Neal has done, but I am defending his 1st Amendment rights,” Ideman said.
The school district had asked Ideman to reconsider an order Tuesday overturning Neal’s suspension and allowing him to graduate.
District officials argued that the fliers were not free speech because they were threatening to the principal and violated school rules on publishing on campus.
In her first comments on the case, Bouman said she felt threatened and offended by how she was portrayed in the flier.
“I had relatives who died in the gas chamber,” she said in an interview before the graduation. “To be attacked as a Nazi is about the most racial thing I can think of.”
She called the fliers “inflammatory” and said she feared they might incite some sort of campus disturbance.
During the court session, the judge blamed the district for a “public relations disaster” in its handling of the controversy. Though Ideman ruled out expulsion, he indicated that officials still could consider less severe steps, such as including the flier in Neal’s school records.
The district’s lawyer, Christine M. Wagner, said she did not know whether the school board would drop the matter.