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Expelled for being a fan 

Should a student who displays questionable or tasteless signs at a sporting event be punished?

Updated: April 18, 2022

This hypothetical case study was developed in partnership with the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

Before class (5 minutes)

Read “W&J Expels Student for ‘Disrespectful’ Sign at Game” from Inside Higher Ed.

Class time needed

15 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

  • Outline the main issues surrounding free speech and expression in public vs. private schools
  • List the different protections guaranteed between public and private schools
  • Outline students’ and journalists’ rights to free expression in public and private facilities


You are a photographer for your student newspaper. Your small private school’s women’s basketball team is having a record season and more people are attending women’s games than men’s games. In fact, if things keep going well, your team might enjoy a deep run in the NCAA tournament, maybe even having a shot at the Final Four or a national title.

It’s a very exciting time to be a fan, and in fact the team and coaches credit the raucous, supportive crowd as one of their keys to success. However, the small school doesn’t have a gym big enough to hold the big crowds, so this year the college has been playing at a bigger arena owned by the city.

During one of the season’s last games, you notice a fan of your college in the crowd holding up a posterboard sign that says, “First and Main!!!” You’re not sure what it means, but you snap a photo and it ends up running on the front page of your school newspaper.

You find out later that the sign references an intersection where the mother of one of the opposing team’s players was recently killed — she was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street. People are outraged at the tasteless “joke,” and the university is flooded with calls condemning the student and the photo.

Your university ends up expelling the student, who in turn files a suit against both you and the paper, alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated. He is seeking readmittance to the university, and monetary damages from you for taking and publishing the photo.

Discussion questions

  1. Do you think the student will win his case against the school? Why or why not?
  2. What about his case against the student photographer? Why or why not?
  3. Does the First Amendment protect speech that is not uttered but in this case written and held up?
  4. How might this case play out differently if the school was a public school instead of a private one?
  5. The sign and the photo both came from inside a public facility and not a private school building. Does that impact the nature of this case at all?

Case briefs:

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District

Pickering v. Board of Education