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Experts disagree on punishment for Reno student who cursed in call to Congressman

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RENO, Nev. (News 4 & Fox 11) — The McQueen junior suspended for cursing in a call to his Congressman last week has sparked a First Amendment debate with no easy answers.

17-year-old Noah Christiansen stepped outside during the national school walkout last Wednesday and called Republican Mark Amodei's office to express his views about gun control.

During the call, Christiansen asked lawmakers to "get off their *expletive* asses," a comment that was reported to school administrators by an Amodei staffer. Administrators suspended Christiansen for two days.

But did McQueen High School have the right to suspend him for the comment? Experts disagree.

UNR media law assistant professor Patrick File pointed out that Christiansen, who had been marked tardy because of his involvement in the walkout, was not participating in a school-sponsored event when he made the comments.

"He wasn't speaking on behalf of the school, he wasn't representing the school in any formal, official sense."

"That's where I start to get worried about when we're punishing students purely for their speech, not any kind of threatening action," File said.

In the 1969 landmark Supreme Court case Tinker vs. Des Moines, the court ruled that schools can punish students for speech only if that speech "causes or is reasonably likely to cause a material and substantial disruption to school activities."

Local First Amendment lawyer Terri Keyser-Cooper said that although Christiansen cursed during a protest while he was marked tardy, she still believed the school district could make a case that his speech was a substantial disruption.

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"It doesn't make any difference whether a student uses cuss words in a classroom, outside the class or on school grounds — it's all the same," Keyser-Cooper said.

"The school has a right to control that."

Christiansen still is waiting to hear back from McQueen administrators. He said he would like his name cleared, his suspension revoked and wants to return to his role as class treasurer.

If Christiansen doesn't hear back about the punishment by Monday, he said he will contact the American Civil Liberties Union about the next steps.

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