The American Civil Liberties Union is suing a northwest Indiana school district that it says expelled three eighth-graders for joking on Facebook about which of their classmates they would like to kill.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Hammond alleges Griffith Public Schools violated the three 14-year-old girls' free speech rights.

The girls were suspended and later expelled in January after a classmate's mother alerted school officials to the Facebook posts. The suit says school officials told the girls they had violated school policy against bullying, harassment and intimidation.

ACLU attorney Gavin Rose says it was clear the girls were joking because their remarks were accompanied by smiley faces and other emoticons. “The girls were simply engaged in teenage banter,” the suit said, reported the Indy Star.

"Any reasonable person could see the conversation was purely in jest and could not be interpreted seriously," Rose said in the news release, the paper reported. "Free speech rights under the First Amendment, even when it's speech we don't like or agree with, must still be protected, and schools do not possess infinite reach into the private lives of their students."
School officials didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.