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Principal sues school district after suspension following free speech talk to students

Administrator had warned about increasing censorship from dominant social media companies.

Updated: March 1, 2021 - 11:55am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

A high school principal is suing his school district after being suspended from his position following a video in which he urged students to be wary of constraints on freedom of speech and thought. 

Barton Thorne, who leads Cordova High School in Shelby County, Tenn., was put on leave after a video address to students in January in which he warned them about Big Tech companies that "filter and ... decide what you can hear and know about."

Thorne's remarks came shortly after the Jan. 6 riot and subsequent bans of then-President Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook. Thorne in the video address called the riot "sedition" and "ignorance at the highest levels," yet he still cautioned that the burgeoning movement to restrict discourse on major platforms could have negative consequences.

"[T]hink about totalitarian governments," Thorne said at one point. "Think about North Korea, think about China. What makes those types of systems possible is the restriction and the elimination of the free exchange of ideas.

"And America, and in democracies, we talk about the marketplace of ideas. Well, what happens when the marketplace of ideas becomes a forced monopoly?"

Thorne in response to his suspension retained the counsel of the Liberty Justice Center. Daniel Suhr, a senior attorney at the center who is representing Thorne, said that the school district quickly reinstated Thorne upon being contacted by his legal counsel.

"We filed Thursday morning, we got contacted by Shelby County Schools shortly thereafter, and they told him he was being reinstated," Suhr said. "Which really betrays the fact that this was not about due process, this was about politics." 

"This really starts with Principal Thorne doing his job," Suhr continued. "If you read the transcript [of the video address], you can see that Principal Thorne was encouraging his students to think critically, he was talking about the importance of free speech in a free society, and he was trying to teach his students that when we disagree with people, it's important that we respond respectfully, and engage with their arguments."

Though Thorne has been reinstated, he is still suing the school district over the dismissal. In a complaint filed this week, Thorne's attorneys argued that Thorne's statements were within the protected bounds of Shelby County Schools policy and that the school should be compelled to acknowledge that his suspension "violated the First Amendment" and that the school district "breached [its] contract" with Thorne over the dismissal.

"When they took Principal Thorne's job away, they took his reputation away," Suhr said. "They gave his job back, but now they need to make right on his reputation."

Reached for comment, the school district said it "does not comment on pending litigation."

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