Judges from the U.S. 1st Circuit Court Appeals wrote that Cape Elizabeth High administrators did not prove Aela Mansmann was bullying another student when she posted a note saying there was a rapist in the school. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A federal appeals court has sided with a Cape Elizabeth High School student who was disciplined for posting a note in a girls’ bathroom saying there was a rapist in the school.

The decision from the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on Thursday means that Aela Mansmann will not be required to serve a three-day suspension while her free speech case proceeds in the lower court. The judges agreed that Mansmann is likely to succeed in her lawsuit, and they wrote that school administrators did not prove she was bullying another student when she posted the note, which was their justification for her suspension.

“Indeed, a school cannot suppress speech simply because it is unpopular with or critical of the school administrators,” U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch wrote.

Mansmann and her mother, Shael Norris, filed the lawsuit in federal court last year.

“This is a huge win for survivors, for survivor advocates, for everyone,” Mansmann, 16, said. “This case is just an example of what happens all over the country, and I really think that students, but also school administrators, have an opportunity to learn from this.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is representing Mansmann and her mother in the case.

“It is already difficult for survivors and their allies to speak up about sexual assault,” Emma Bond, the organization’s legal director, wrote in a statement. “The Circuit Court’s decision affirms that schools cannot silence students simply for speaking up on important, but difficult, issues. It affirms the long-established precedent that students do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.”

Aela Mansmann speaks to students who walked out of Cape Elizabeth High School in October 2019 to protest the suspension of Mansmann and two other students for their complaints about how the school handled sexual assault allegations. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Melissa Hewey, the attorney representing the school department, said they were disappointed the appeals court did not reverse the lower court’s decision. But she said the decision did affirm the school’s ability to restrict student speech that results in bullying.

“This has always been a case about the school’s efforts to address bullying,” Hewey wrote in an email. “The 1st Circuit recognized that and this decision strengthens the ability of school administrators to deal with bullying speech, even when it is not disruptive to the school as a whole.”

Mansmann, who was a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High last year, is an advocate against sexual assault. In September, she posted a sticky note in a bathroom that read, “There’s a rapist in the school and you know who it is.” Two other girls posted similar notes.

School officials said at the time that they were investigating the allegations in the note. They also said the school was safe and there was no rapist in the building.

Mansmann spoke with the Portland Press Herald about student concerns over the district’s response to sexual assault allegations. The same day the newspaper published a story about those concerns and the notes in the bathrooms, the school told Mansmann she would be suspended for three days for bullying.

She appealed the suspension, saying that her note referred to the school department in general and not a specific student. About 50 students staged a walkout to support her and the other two girls who were disciplined. The ACLU of Maine then filed the lawsuit on behalf of Mansmann and her mother in the U.S. District Court of Maine.

The complaint alleges school officials violated the student’s First Amendment rights and her protection from retaliation under Title IX, which is part of a federal law that prevents gender discrimination and sexual violence in education. The ACLU also filed a separate motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the district court to stop the suspension from taking effect while the case is litigated.

In October, District Judge Lance Walker heard oral arguments in Portland and then granted that motion for a preliminary injunction.

“Something more is necessary to justify punishment,” Walker wrote in his own ruling. “If school administrators receive carte blanche to tamp down and vet non-frivolous outcries on topics of social justice, expressed in areas generally associated with free student communication, where would that leave us?”

The Cape Elizabeth School Department appealed that decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court in Boston. The case in the lower court has been on hold since then.

A panel of judges heard oral arguments in the appeal in June. They also considered amicus briefs in support of Mansmann, including one filed by the Gender Violence Legal Policy Workshop at Harvard Law School. That brief says the school district’s handling of the case is indicative of “serious Title IX compliance problems.” The district rebutted that in its filing, saying Harvard mischaracterized the district’s response.

In their order, the appeals judges agreed that bullying is a serious issue.

“We agree with the school that bullying is the type of conduct that implicates the governmental interest in protecting against the invasion of the rights of others. … Thus, schools may restrict such speech even if it does not necessarily cause substantial disruption to the school community more broadly. However, for a school to rely on that basis for restricting student speech, there must be a reasonable basis for the administration to have determined both that the student speech targeted a specific student and that it invaded that student’s rights.”

But the court also found that the school district failed to prove any causal link between Mansmann’s note and bullying of a specific student, and the facts in the case support Mansmann’s argument that her note was a general statement speaking out against her school’s handling of sexual assault allegations.

“Posting the sticky note was far from the best way for A.M. to express her concerns about student-on-student sexual assault and Cape Elizabeth H.S.’s handling of sexual assault claims,” Lynch wrote. “The issue before us, however, is whether the district court abused its discretion in issuing the preliminary injunction. We hold that it did not.”

Mansmann said Friday that the legal battle has brought together survivors and advocates who want to reform policies in their own schools across the country, and she is hopeful and excited about their work.

“If we’re just doing healing work and justice work, that’s not enough,” she said. “I really hope that the school is able to reflect on their sex ed curriculum and their consent education that happens in school, so students really know the right and wrong way to conduct a sexual relationship.”

The order from the appeals court was also marked by sadness. Mansmann said she was dedicating her victory to Daisy Coleman, a national advocate for survivors of sexual assault who took her own life this week.

Coleman was one of the founders of SafeBAE, the national sexual assault prevention group where Mansmann’s mother is the executive director. Mansmann said Coleman was a mentor to her.

“She would have been the first person I told about this,” Mansmann said. “We’re really said that she’s gone. She is, I know, so proud of everything that is happening. This win is for her.”

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