TOLLHOUSE, Calif. — A Sierra Unified student was banned from playing on the basketball team for retweeting Snoop Dogg and sharing other "inappropriate" celebrity posts online — a violation of her freedom of speech, a lawsuit alleges.
Racquel Alec, a senior at Sierra High, was suspended from the team for liking and sharing posts from musicians on Twitter and other social media sites, including one of Snoop Dogg "holding what appeared to be a marijuana joint in his hand," according to a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court in Fresno.
The school district said that Alec's social media presence violated a policy that forbids students from "engaging in inappropriate sexual and drug propaganda." But her attorney contends that the posts are not a punishable offense: they did not threaten anyone on campus; were made from a private account that only those who requested to be her friend could see, and were not posted using school computers. (Twitter is blocked on Sierra High computers.)
"The speech (Alec) was punished for was not 'student speech' at all and cannot be regulated or controlled by defendants. In fact, the speech being punished here was merely a passive clicking/liking of an image posted of a celebrity artist," Fresno attorney Pahoua Lor wrote in the complaint.
The complaint, filed last month, also targets former basketball coach Cathy Lauritzen, who currently serves as assistant principal at Sierra High, a school located in the mountain community of Tollhouse.
Alec, 18, who had served as captain of the basketball team, was suspended in 2016 for getting in a fight with another student but was to be allowed to return to the team after summer if she kept a clean discipline record.
The complaint alleges that Lauritzen did not want Alec to return to the team, so she asked another student to help her access Alec's private accounts "with the intent of invading her privacy to humiliate, embarrass, harass and ridicule" her.
A parent of a student on the team verified that claim and said Lauritzen had asked her daughter to show her Alec's information using her own social media accounts.
A previous complaint had been filed against Lauritzen for "intimidating and harassing behaviors" against another student athlete in 2009, according to the lawsuit. Lauritzen did not return requests for comment.
"Any reasonable vice principal, coach or any other school official would have known that the act of enlisting students (minors) to target another student in an effort to gather private information is improper," the suit states. "Furthermore, any reasonable school official would have known that the act of punishing or preventing a student for wholly nonstudent and off-campus speech that does not involve or threaten any school function or school personnel is not permissible or lawful."
The district investigated the incident and found some of the allegations against Lauritzen to be true, but did not agree that she was intentionally targeting Alec, according to the complaint.
Sierra Unified Superintendent Melissa Ireland declined to comment on the case but said "we feel like we responded appropriately in this situation." Ireland confirmed Lauritzen is still serving as assistant principal at Sierra High.
Alec declined to comment, but her mother, Tami Alec, said the incident caused her emotional distress, tainted her high school record and hurt her plans to play college ball.
"When she was prevented from playing, she dropped out of school. She pretty much had a nervous breakdown," said Tami Alec of Tollhouse. "When all of this happened, it really traumatized her. What we want is for this to never happen to another student again."