Federal Judge Rules In Favor Of Cape Elizabeth Student Suspended Over Note Warning Of A Rapist

Aug 7, 2020

A federal appeals court judge has reaffirmed a lower court decision that blocked the suspension of a Cape Elizabeth High School student over a note she posted in the school's bathroom last year.

In this Oct. 7, 2019, photo provided by Shael Norris, high school sophomore Aela Mansmann, 15, of Cape Elizabeth, left, stands with her brother Aidan, 13, as he displays a placard during a school walkout, in Cape Elizabeth.
Credit SHAEL NORRIS / AP Images

The note, written by student Aela Mansmann, said there was a rapist in the school. After an investigation, school officials said the note constituted bullying and suspended Mansmann for three days. Mansmann appealed, and the ACLU filed a lawsuit on her behalf, saying that the note should be considered protected speech.

First Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch ruled Friday that the district did not show how the note caused bullying, and that a school cannot punish a student because "her speech causes argument on a controversial topic."

Mansmann says that she hopes the case helps to set a precedent going further, particularly because courts often do nto rule in favor of survivors and advocates in sexual assault cases.

"This verdict has really affirmed and reinstated the belief that the justice system, maybe, is more supportive of survivors," Mansmann says. "And this movement really is picking up. And there is justice somewhere for survivors — there's a potential for justice.”

ACLU of Maine Legal Director Emma Bond says the case also supports the rights of students to speak out within school walls.

"Students need to be able to speak out about issues that affect their lives," Bond says. "And this case reaffirms that students have the free speech right to do so, and they don't leave that right at the schoolhouse gate."

The decision means that Mansmann will not be suspended as her case continues through the courts.

In an emailed statement, the Cape Elizabeth school department said that while it is disappointed in the decision, the court still affirmed the ability of school administrators to "restrict student speech that results in the bullying of another student."

"As the court recognized, the student in this case was disciplined because school administration believed she was bullying another student and this decision provides further justification for our commitment to protecting the rights of all students to feel safe at school and free from bullying behavior by their peers," the district's statement reads.