Last week, Noah Christiansen walked out of school, along with thousands of other students across the country, as a part of the nationwide protest to bring about gun control legislation.
During those 17 minutes out of class at Robert McQueen High School in Reno, he called the office of his congressman — Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) — to urge him to do his part and got a staff member on the phone. Christiansen made his case and, in a moment of frustration, he used an expletive. Yes, it was the big one. No, the staffer didn’t like it.
A few hours later, Christiansen learned he’d been suspended for two days. “For being disrespectful and insubordinate,” he said by phone Monday from Reno. Turns out, Amodei’s staffer had contacted the school to tell the principal about Christiansen’s choice of words.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada wrote a letter to the school asking that the suspension be scrubbed from his record and that Christiansen be reinstated as student body secretary-treasurer, arguing the discipline violated Christiansen’s First Amendment rights.
Holly Welborn, policy director for the ACLU in Nevada, said constituents should not have to worry congressional offices reporting them to schools or employers for expressing their views — and that the action taken by Amodei’s staffer could have a “chilling” effect on their contact with elected representatives.
“It really took a lot of courage for the students to participate in these protests and in our democracy only to see it be undermined by the congressman’s staff,” she said. “It’s very much against the First Amendment.”
The ACLU also wrote a letter to Amodei seeking an apology.
Christiansen said he had been sickened by the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month. Now 17, he was born after the massacre at Columbine High School. He’s grown up seeing school shootings in the news in Newtown, Conn., and at Virginia Tech, as well as mass shootings in Orlando, Fla.; Las Vegas and Aurora, Colo.
He said he was inspired by the protests that followed the killings of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and that he was frustrated by the lack of action by Congress.
Which led to him dropping the vulgar word. He said Congress needed to “get off their [expletive] asses” and take action on gun violence. He said he wasn’t threatening anyone.
Amodei said it isn’t his office’s policy for staffers to contact schools or employers when a constituent voices opinions or concerns, and he said this was not a case of retribution. But, he said, the staffer had 17 years of experience taking calls from the public and made a decision to let the school know about it. He said no action was requested by him or the staffer to punish Christiansen.
Amodei, who is up for reelection in November and is a strong supporter of gun rights, said he wouldn’t apologize to the student. However, he said his office would review protocols for taking calls from constituents. And he acknowledged Christiansen’s frustration.
“Sometimes I’m one of the people who gets frustrated,” Amodei said. “Look, I’m not going to be the language proctor for the U.S. House of Representatives, but I am going to allow a senior staffer who deals with all of that stuff — if they think a situation was such that it warranted saying something up the line.... Well, you know what, I’m responsible for what I’m saying right now. Welcome to the world where words have impact.”
The Washoe County School District, where Christiansen is a junior, issued a statement Monday, saying it supported students’ rights to free speech — noting walkouts on March 14 at several of its campuses and that no students were suspended for that action.
The statement also said that while it couldn’t discuss specific discipline of individual students due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, “the district expects students to act appropriately and with decorum. Some students were disciplined for breaking student conduct codes or participating in other inappropriate behavior.”
Christiansen said he plans to keep raising the issue of gun violence and speaking out for tighter gun laws. He also said he plans to speak at the ballot box in November, when he votes for the first time.
He said he won’t be voting for Amodei.