S.J.W. v. Lee's Summit R–7 Sch. Dist., No. 12–1727.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (8th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtMELLOY
Citation696 F.3d 771
PartiesS.J.W., By and Through His Parents, Brian WILSON and Linda Wilson; S.W.W., By and Through His Parents, Brian Wilson and Linda Wilson, Plaintiffs–Appellees v. LEE'S SUMMIT R–7 SCHOOL DISTRICT; Dr. David McGehee, Superintendent, In His Individual and Official Capacity; Jack Wiley, Board President, In His Individual and Official Capacity; Chris Storms, Board Member, In His Individual and Official Capacity; Terri Harmon, Board Member, In Her Individual and Official Capacity; Patti Buie, Board Member, In Her Individual and Official Capacity; Ron Baker, Board Member, In His Individual and Official Capacity, Defendants–Appellants. ACLU Foundation of Kansas and Western Missouri; ACLU Eastern Missouri, Amici on Behalf of Appellees.
Decision Date21 November 2012
Docket NumberNo. 12–1727.

696 F.3d 771

S.J.W., By and Through His Parents, Brian WILSON and Linda Wilson; S.W.W., By and Through His Parents, Brian Wilson and Linda Wilson, Plaintiffs–Appellees
v.
LEE'S SUMMIT R–7 SCHOOL DISTRICT; Dr. David McGehee, Superintendent, In His Individual and Official Capacity; Jack Wiley, Board President, In His Individual and Official Capacity; Chris Storms, Board Member, In His Individual and Official Capacity; Terri Harmon, Board Member, In Her Individual and Official Capacity; Patti Buie, Board Member, In Her Individual and Official Capacity; Ron Baker, Board Member, In His Individual and Official Capacity, Defendants–Appellants.

ACLU Foundation of Kansas and Western Missouri; ACLU Eastern Missouri, Amici on Behalf of Appellees.

No. 12–1727.

United States Court of Appeals,
Eighth Circuit.

Submitted: Sept. 19, 2012.
Filed: Oct. 17, 2012.

Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Denied Nov. 21, 2012.


[696 F.3d 772]


Jessica M. Bernard, argued, Robert O. Jester, on the brief, Kansas City, MO, for appellant.

Aaron Elliott Schwartz, argued, Overland Park, KS, Christina Marie Pyle, Kevin D. Weakley, on the brief, Kansas City, MO, for appellees.


Anthony Rothert, argued, Grant R. Doty, on the brief, St. Louis, MO, for amicus ACLU—Eastern Missouri and Stephen Douglas Bonney, on the brief, Kansas City, MO, for amicus ACLU Foundation of Kansas and Western Missouri.

Before MELLOY and BENTON, Circuit Judges, and BAKER,1 District Judge.

[696 F.3d 773]



MELLOY, Circuit Judge.

The Lee's Summit R–7 School District (“the School District”) issued 180–day suspensions to twin brothers Steven and Sean Wilson (together, “the Wilsons”) on January 11, 2012 for disruption caused by a website the Wilsons created. The Wilsons filed suit against the School District on March 6, 2012, alleging, along with other claims, that the School District violated their rights to free speech. The Wilsons also filed a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction to lift their suspensions.2 On March 23, 2012, the District Court entered an Order granting the Wilsons' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction. The School District filed a Notice of Appeal on March 27, 2012. The School District also filed an Expedited Motion for a Stay Pending Appeal on March 29, 2012, which we denied.

The matter currently before this court is the School District's appeal of the Order granting the Wilsons' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction. We hold that the District Court's findings do not support a preliminary injunction. Accordingly, we vacate the District Court's Order and reverse the preliminary injunction.

I.

In December 2011, the Wilsons were juniors at Lee's Summit North High School (“Lee's Summit North”) in the School District. During the week of December 12, 2011, the Wilsons created a website called NorthPress. NorthPress contained a blog. According to the Wilsons, the purpose of the blog was to discuss, satirize, and “vent” about events at Lee's Summit North. The Wilsons used a Dutch domain site, which prevented U.S. users from finding NorthPress via a Google search, but any U.S. user could access NorthPress if she knew the website address. The site was not password-protected.

Between Tuesday, December 13 and Friday, December 16, 2011, the Wilsons added posts to the NorthPress blog. The Wilsons' posts contained a variety of offensive and racist comments as well as sexually explicit and degrading comments about particular female classmates, whom they identified by name. 3 The racist posts discussed fights at Lee's Summit North and mocked black students. A third student added another racist post.

The parties dispute the extent to which the Wilsons used Lee's Summit North computers to create, maintain, or access NorthPress. On Tuesday, December 13, one of the Wilsons used a school computer to upload files needed to create NorthPress. The School District's computer records also show a person or people accessed NorthPress using Lee's Summit North computers on Wednesday, December 14 and Thursday, December 15,4 but the records do not show who accessed the site. The School District cannot prove whether those users added content to the site or merely viewed it.

The Wilsons testified they initially told only five or six school friends about NorthPress.

[696 F.3d 774]

The Wilsons also claimed they intended only their friends to know about NorthPress. However, whether by accident or intention, word spread quickly. On the morning of Friday, December 16, the Lee's Summit North student body at large learned about NorthPress.

Based on student and faculty reports, Lee's Summit North administrators quickly linked the Wilsons to NorthPress. Lee's Summit North administrators immediately suspended the Wilsons for ten days and referred the matter to the School District. Following a hearing, an appeal by the Wilsons, and a second hearing, the School District suspended both Wilsons from Lee's Summit North for 180 days but allowed them to enroll in another school, Summit Ridge Academy, for the duration of their suspensions. The Wilsons filed suit against the School District and moved for a preliminary injunction to lift the suspensions.

The District Court conducted a preliminary injunction hearing on March 19, 21, and 22, 2012. At the hearing, the Wilsons testified they intended the posts on NorthPress to be satirical rather than serious. The Wilsons denied they were racists. The Wilsons testified that December 16, 2011 was a normal school day free from significant disruptions and suggested that the third student's post was the sole cause of any actual disruption. The Wilsons claimed that the classes at Summit Ridge Academy were not academically challenging, that Summit Ridge Academy did not provide honors courses, and that Summit Ridge Academy did not provide ACT classes. The Wilsons also testified they wanted to pursue careers in music or theater, and their chances for college band scholarships would be hurt if they could not participate in the Lee's Summit North band. The Wilsons' parents testified they did not believe their sons would be in any danger at Lee's Summit North.

Conversely, the School District's witnesses testified the public discovery of NorthPress caused substantial disruption on December 16, 2011. The School District's computer records from December 16 show numerous Lee's Summit North computers were used to access or to attempt to access NorthPress.5 Lee's Summit North teachers testified they experienced difficulty managing their classes because students were distracted and in some cases upset by NorthPress; at least two teachers described December 16 as one of the most or the most disrupted day of their teaching careers. Lee's Summit North administrators testified that local media arrived on campus and that parents contacted the school with concerns about safety, bullying, and discrimination, both on December 16 and for some time afterwards. Additionally, Lee's Summit North administrators expressed concern that the Wilsons' early return to Lee's Summit North would cause further disruption and might endanger the Wilsons.

On March 22, 2012, the District Court granted the Wilsons' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction in an oral ruling and subsequently issued a written order to the same effect. In its oral ruling, the District Court considered “likelihood of success, whether plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm if relief is denied, whether the balance of inequities tips in the plaintiffs ['] favor, [and] whether injunctive relief is in the public interest.” The District Court observed no Eighth Circuit decision directly

[696 F.3d 775]

controlled the Wilsons' free speech claim. However, the District Court pointed to two pertinent Eighth Circuit cases, Doe v. Pulaski County Special School District, 306 F.3d 616 (8th Cir.2002), and D.J.M. v. Hannibal Public School District # 60, 647 F.3d 754 (8th Cir.2011). The District Court observed that the Wilsons needed to show a “fair chance” of success on the merits. Citing cases from other circuits, the District Court concluded, “there does seem to be a distinct possibility that the defendants could be exonerated based on the discussion that I've mentioned and the cases that I have reviewed.” 6

The District Court credited the testimony of Lee's Summit North teachers and concluded NorthPress “caused considerable disturbance and disruption on Friday, the 16th.” Although the District Court evidently agreed that the third student's post was the primary cause of the disturbance on December 16, the District Court also noted at least one of the Wilsons' posts about a female student “was part of the sensation that day” and concluded “[t]he greatest school wide problem apparently was created by several racist blogs, one of the worst of which was authored by the first twin.” The District Court found that the NorthPress blog was “targeted at” Lee's Summit North.

The District Court found that the Wilsons' inability to try out for the Lee's Summit North band or attend the honors classes offered at Lee's Summit North constituted irreparable harm. It concluded the balance of equities clearly favored the Wilsons. The District Court concluded an injunction posed no material harm to the School District. It identified no significant public interests at play “other than in a fair and reasonable disposition of the motion.” Based on these conclusions, the District Court entered an Order granting the Wilsons' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction and allowing the Wilsons to return to Lee's Summit North on April 9, 2012.

The School District appealed the preliminary injunction. Following our denial of the School District's Expedited Motion for Stay Pending Appeal, the Wilsons returned to Lee's Summit North. As a result of the preliminary injunction, the Wilsons have not completed their suspensions.

On appeal, the School District argues the District Court failed to make sufficient findings of irreparable harm and failed to make an appropriate finding of the Wilsons' likelihood...

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132 practice notes
  • Bell v. Itawamba Cnty. Sch. Bd., No. 12–60264.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • December 12, 2014
    ...and posting to a MySpace webpage that was largely dedicated to ridiculing a fellow student); S.J.W. v. Lee's Summit R–7 Sch. Dist., 696 F.3d 771 (8th Cir.2012) (students suspended for creating website with offensive and racist comments discussing fights at their school and mocking black stu......
  • B.L. v. Mahanoy Area Sch. Dist., No. 19-1842
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • June 30, 2020
    ...Rainville v. Eugene Sch. Dist. 4J , 835 F.3d 1142, 1146, 1151 (9th Cir. 2016) ; S.J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee's Summit R-7 Sch. Dist. , 696 F.3d 771, 773, 777–78 (8th Cir. 2012). And the Second Circuit has applied it in a case involving neither violence nor harassment: In Doninger , the cour......
  • Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. Bhd. of Maint. of Way Employes Div. of the Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 8:20-CV-516
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    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Nebraska
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    ...a preliminary injunction, likelihood of success on the merits is most significant." S.J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee's Summit R-7 Sch. Dist. , 696 F.3d 771, 776 (8th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Minn. Ass'n of Nurse Anesthetists v. Unity Hosp. , 59 F.3d 80, 83 (8th Cir......
  • Richland/Wilkin Joint Powers Auth. v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng'rs, Civil No. 13–2262 (JRT/LIB)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Minnesota
    • September 7, 2017
    ...(3) the balance of harms as between the parties; and (4) the public interest. S.J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee's Summit R–7 Sch. Dist. , 696 F.3d 771, 776 (8th Cir. 2012) (citing Dataphase Sys., Inc. v. C L Sys., Inc. , 640 F.2d 109, 113 (8th Cir. 1981) ). "At base, the question is whether the ......
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129 cases
  • Bell v. Itawamba Cnty. Sch. Bd., No. 12–60264.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • December 12, 2014
    ...and posting to a MySpace webpage that was largely dedicated to ridiculing a fellow student); S.J.W. v. Lee's Summit R–7 Sch. Dist., 696 F.3d 771 (8th Cir.2012) (students suspended for creating website with offensive and racist comments discussing fights at their school and mocking black stu......
  • B.L. v. Mahanoy Area Sch. Dist., No. 19-1842
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • June 30, 2020
    ...Rainville v. Eugene Sch. Dist. 4J , 835 F.3d 1142, 1146, 1151 (9th Cir. 2016) ; S.J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee's Summit R-7 Sch. Dist. , 696 F.3d 771, 773, 777–78 (8th Cir. 2012). And the Second Circuit has applied it in a case involving neither violence nor harassment: In Doninger , the cour......
  • Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. Bhd. of Maint. of Way Employes Div. of the Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 8:20-CV-516
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Nebraska
    • December 23, 2020
    ...a preliminary injunction, likelihood of success on the merits is most significant." S.J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee's Summit R-7 Sch. Dist. , 696 F.3d 771, 776 (8th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Minn. Ass'n of Nurse Anesthetists v. Unity Hosp. , 59 F.3d 80, 83 (8th Cir......
  • Richland/Wilkin Joint Powers Auth. v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng'rs, Civil No. 13–2262 (JRT/LIB)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Minnesota
    • September 7, 2017
    ...(3) the balance of harms as between the parties; and (4) the public interest. S.J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee's Summit R–7 Sch. Dist. , 696 F.3d 771, 776 (8th Cir. 2012) (citing Dataphase Sys., Inc. v. C L Sys., Inc. , 640 F.2d 109, 113 (8th Cir. 1981) ). "At base, the question is whether the ......
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