PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A high school activist’s comment about rape posted on a bathroom mirror represents constitutionally protected free speech — and punishing her would discourage young victims from coming forward, an attorney said Monday.
The sticky note that proclaimed “There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is” aimed to call attention to the unaddressed problem of sexual assaults, said Emma Bond from the American Civil Liberties of Maine.
But a lawyer for Cape Elizabeth High School said the note targeted an individual who had to leave school for several days.
U.S. District Judge Lance Walker, who listened to the arguments on Monday, said he’ll rule soon on Aela Mansmann’s request to intervene to stop a three-day suspension imposed by school administrators.
During the hearing, Bond cited statistics showing 14% of Maine girls report being a victim of sexual assault in arguing that Mansmann was calling attention to a pervasive problem.
She said that punishing her for speaking out about “an important political and social issue” would have a chilling effect on her fellow students.
“People are already worried about how they speak out about sexual assault,” Bond said. Suspending the 15-year-old from school over her actions “sends a dangerous message to people nationwide,” she said.
But attorney Melissa Hewey, who represents the high school a few miles outside of Portland, said administrators believe Mansmann was targeting an individual — and delivering a message that the school isn’t safe.
There were far better ways to address her concerns about sexual assault, Hewey said. For starters, she should’ve addressed her concerns to an adult in the school instead of posting a note in student bathroom.
“If you’re going to advocate, you advocate in appropriate manner. You don’t post a sticky note,” she said.
Mansmann was suspended for violating the high school’s anti-bullying policy, but she hasn’t yet served the suspension. Two other students also were suspended but haven’t come forward. It’s unclear if they accepted their punishments.
After the note was posted, the rumor mill spun out of control. A male student who thought he’d been singled out missed eight days of school because he felt unsafe.
In the end, the high school conducted 47 interviews, and Principal Jeffrey Shedd said the school was safe. He said Mansmann and the two others who were suspended meant well but made “made a really bad choice.”