In this Oct. 7, 2019 photo, high school sophomore Aela Mansmann, then 15, of Cape Elizabeth, left, stands with her younger brother Aidan as he displays a placard during a school walkout, in Cape Elizabeth. Credit: Courtesy of Shael Norris

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

PORTLAND, Maine —  A federal appeals court has ruled that a lower court was justified in blocking the suspension of a Cape Elizabeth student who posted a note in a bathroom to draw attention to sexual assault.

Aela Mansmann, a then 15-year-old student at Cape Elizabeth High School, wrote an anonymous message on a sticky note saying, “There is a rapist in our school and you know who it is.” She posted it in a women’s bathroom at the school in September 2019. School authorities suspended Mansmann and two others who left similar notes for bullying following an investigation.

Writing on behalf of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, Judge Sandra L. Lynch found that the school “is not permitted to punish a student merely because her speech causes argument on a controversial topic.”

The decision upholds a controversial court ruling on constitutionally protected free speech, finding that the student’s message followed other unsuccessful attempts to bring the matter to the school’s administrators through official channels.

In a statement, Cape Elizabeth Superintendent Donna Wolfrom said she was disappointed that the court did not reverse the decision to block the school from suspending Mansmann, adding that the school has “always encouraged our students to speak out on matters that are important to them” but that policy “is not what this case was about.”

“As the court recognized, the student in this case was disciplined because school administration believed she was bullying another student and this decision provides further justification for our commitment to protecting the rights of all students to feel safe at school and free from bullying behavior by their peers,” Wolfrom said. 

Mansmann said she was thrilled that the court recognized her advocacy as protected speech under the Constitution.

“I hope this ruling helps more students speak up about sexual assault, and other topics that are important to them,” Mansmann said.  

On June 11, 2019, Mansmann and two of her peers attended a Cape Elizabeth public school board meeting during which they raised concerns about the school’s Title IX procedures and its inadequate handling of sexual violence, according to court documents.

The student complained that the school district had no policy describing how to report sexual assault and requested that the school board work with her and fellow students on a comprehensive policy, according to the ruling.

“The administrators assert that after the meeting, a school committee ‘embarked on a comprehensive . . . review of [the school’s] policies and procedures.’ The committee appointed a student representative but did not invite any of the students who had requested to be involved,” the ruling said.

The case was taken up by the ACLU of Maine, which argued that the sticky note raised awareness about an issue of public significance. The ACLU called for a federal court to block the suspension of the student last October.

“It is already difficult for survivors and their allies to speak up about sexual assault,” said Emma Bond, legal director of the ACLU of Maine. “The circuit court’s decision affirms that schools cannot silence students simply for speaking up on important, but difficult, issues. It affirms the long-established precedent that students do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.”  

The school’s principal wrote in a letter to the community last October that a male student believed he was the target of the note and felt unsafe at school. The ACLU of Maine argued that that was not relevant to the case, since the student who authored the note did not identify anyone by name.

The court found that school administrators interviewed 47 students about the sticky note, and reviewed camera footage from inside the school. Through that investigation, authorities found evidence of a video that had circulated the student body that appeared to accuse a male student of sexual assault. 

School authorities investigated the accusations and determined they were not credible, saying that some students they interviewed described the video as “a joke.” The male student stayed home from school for more than a week after he was targeted by fellow classmates. 

Mansmann maintained that her message did not refer to any specific incident and was intended to raise awareness about “rape culture” at the school. The school district conducted seven investigations into possible sexual harassment or assault violations of Title IX last school year, and determined that violations “more likely than not” occurred in four of those cases, according to the Portland Press Herald.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.