Former student considers suing high school over suspension for reference to racial slur

IDAHO -- An Idaho teenager is planning to sue his school district for suspending him after a reference to a racial slur was printed in the student newspaper.

Sam Lyle, a staff writer for Pocatello High School's Chieftan in Pocatello, Idaho, said he was suspended for having prior knowledge of the article's content.

The beginning of the story, which was a profile of Lyle, noted the letters in "ginger" could be rearranged to spell a derogatory word and was meant as a reference to the 17-year-old Lyle being a redhead.

Roughly a month before publication, Lyle said he told the author -- who is also his friend -- the comment "won't get published, don't waste your time."

But the student left the remark in the article when submitting it. The piece passed through two student editors, an all-class edit from which Lyle was absent, and review by the paper's adviser before going to press.

Both Lyle and the article's author were suspended for a week -- the remainder of their senior year -- including from activities like prom and the senior breakfast. School officials froze his grades and allowed him to attend graduation and receive his diploma.

Lyle said none of the other students -- including editors -- were punished.

"My client has not said, has not done anything offensive," his lawyer Patrick Duffin said.

In documents relating to Lyle's suspension, school officials allege he should have edited out the comment. But Duffin and Lyle disagree, noting he did not write the story or have editorial control of the paper.

What could have fueled the situation was the layout of the page. Lyle was the author of an article placed directly next to the one including the racial comment. The two staff writers shared a joint byline over the separate articles, though Lyle added he had no control over his co-worker's story.

Shortly after the suspension, Lyle's family requested an injunction against the school district hoping he would be able to attend prom, but the request was denied, Duffin said.

"The whole situation has gotten ridiculously out of hand," Lyle said. "All I really want is to get my name cleared. I'm just sick of rumors going around like crazy."

Lyle said one of the paper's editors removed the questionable sentence twice before publication but the change was not saved in the page design program.

Duffin said much of the blame should fall on school officials, adding they have not altered the paper's editing process or disciplined the adviser.

He cited the Supreme Court's decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which permits high school administrators to censor many school-sponsored publications simply by showing they have a legitimate educational reason for doing so.

"If they have the right to censor it, then I think they have the responsibility for content," Duffin said.

Shelley Allen, a spokesperson for the district, said after the reference to the slur was discovered, officials launched an internal investigation into the situation. She could not discuss specific discipline matters but acknowledged students were punished.

The Chieftan adviser could not be reached for this story.

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