In a case that raises serious questions about First Amendment rights, a 16-year-old North Carolina student has filed a federal lawsuit against the Davidson County Board of Education and Assistant Principal Eric Anderson. The lawsuit is in response to the school suspending him for using the term “illegal alien” in class.

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Christian McGhee, represented by the Liberty Justice Center, alleges that his suspension from Central Davidson High School violates his constitutional rights to free speech and due process.

The incident that brought about the lawsuit occurred on April 9, 2024, during an English class vocabulary lesson according to a press release from the Liberty Justice Center.

On April 9, sophomore Christian McGhee raised his hand and asked his English teacher whether her reference to the word “aliens” referred to “space aliens, or illegal aliens who need green cards?” Although there was no substantial disruption to the class, the school decided to suspend Christian for three days out of school, with the administration equating his question to a vicious racial slur. Christian was also prohibited from competing in a season-defining track meet. No appeal was permitted.

Having been branded as a racist by his school, Christian’s return was met with ostracism, bullying, and threats. Concerned for his safety, his parents unenrolled him and he is now completing the semester through a homeschooling program.

After McGhee asked the question, one of his classmates jokingly said he would “kick [McGhee’s a**.” The teacher reported the exchange to the assistant principal, who brought in both boys for questioning. The classmate confirmed that he was not offended and was joking with McGhee. However, Assistant Principal Anderson deemed the joke offensive and suspended the student.

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Leah McGhee, Christian’s mother, was incensed by the school’s decision, explaining that she raised her son “to reject racism in all its forms” and that it was the school “that injected race into this incident.”

“It appears that this administration would rather destroy its own reputation and the reputation of my son rather than admit they made a mistake,” she added.

The Liberty Justice Center contended that the school’s actions are a form of viewpoint discrimination. Buck Dougherty, Senior Counsel at the organization, argued that “Even though Christian asked a factual, non-threatening question—about a word the class was discussing—the school board branded him with false accusations of racism.”

In its press release, the organization refers to the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District to bolster its case against the school. In this ruling, the Court held that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” which could pose a problem for  McGhee’s school.

This was clearly a case of a school punishing a student for their perception of his political views. The fact that the mere utterance of the term “illegal alien” was enough for the school to suspend him suggests a clear political motive. Even if his classmates were offended by his choice of words, suspending him was clearly an over-the-top reaction to what appears to be an innocent comment.

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Not only was the suspension a ridiculous response, but blowing it up to such an issue has clearly caused even more harm to McGhee. The assistant principal essentially labeled him a racist for no valid reason. Coming from a member of the school’s leadership, his reaction could have contributed to the bullying and ostracization McGhee went through. If schools are allowed to get away with this conduct, the problem will only get worse. Hopefully, the court can clearly see what happened here and give the appropriate ruling.