It’s Your Decision: Block That Site?

Students who publish a personal online newspaper have written articles that have expressed opposition to a Catholic priest’s praying at a school assembly. The student journalists have also written opinion pieces urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force their school to clean up a waste dump site. Administrators and students at the school know of the Web site, which is not sponsored by the school. The principal has told student editors that he does not consider their coverage fair or balanced.

The same student Web journalists report on their Web site that during an advanced English class, the teacher said her lesson was “watered down so the students could handle the material.” Students begin talking about the teacher’s comments after the comments are reported on the personal Web site. The editor of the online site, who is a student in the teacher’s class, exchanges verbal comments with the teacher after the teacher tells the student that her comments were taken out of context. The student is suspended for three days.

The teacher was, reportedly, disturbed when she saw coverage of the conflict in the local media. This is not the first time the Web newspaper has criticized the school and its teachers. The principal responds by blocking school computers from accessing the students’ Web publication.

It’s decision time. With whom do you agree?

1.____

The principal who says that any good reporting done by the personal Web newspaper staff is lost in the cynical attitude of the editors. This online publication uses occasional profanity. He says that a publication that attempts to find the worst about its community cannot be fair, balanced or accurate. The students may have the right to publish a Web newspaper, but the school does not have to provide access to it.

2.____ The Director of Guidance who says legal action should be taken against the students. She says the comments have been defamatory. The comments are destroying teachers’ reputations and making it difficult for them to relate to their current students, she says.

3.____

 

The student editor who says that everything the online newspaper staff has reported can be documented. He has tape recordings or written interviews which include comments that three or more students have made about teachers.






















You know the Supreme Court cases involving student rights. Which apply in this situation? Would you block access to the Web site? Do you think the student Web journalists have been irresponsible?

Block That Site? - Background for Discussion

The Real Situation
The Student Press Law Center on Feb. 4, 2002, provided this summary of the situation.

Typically, any press is good press for emerging Internet-based projects, but for the high school student creators of an online newspaper in Pennsylvania, increased media attention has led to problems with school officials.

In January 2002, Paul Caputo, principal of Carbon County Vocational-Technical High School, blocked school computers from accessing thebabbitt.com, home of students James Curry and Conrad Flynn’s muckraker The Babbitt. The online news site had published several articles criticizing various aspects of the school.

“I just felt the language and the content wasn’t appropriate for school viewing,” Caputo told The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. “I just felt I had no choice. They weren’t responding to my requests to be fair and balanced and accurate.”

The most recent controversy stems from a Babbitt article about English teacher Judy Fisher posted last fall. The piece detailed, in provocative and, at times, heavily rhetorical terms, a disciplinary committee episode involving Curry, Caputo and Fisher. Several local newspaper and television stations have covered The Babbitt recently, some of them mentioning specific allegations the student journalists had made in the article.

According to The Babbitt article, Fisher lied about the details of an argument with Curry when referring him to the disciplinary committee. Flynn and two witnesses unaffiliated with the paper supported Curry’s version of the events to Caputo, the article goes on, but the principal sided with the teacher. The disciplinary committee’s recommended three-day in-school suspension was later overturned, according to the article, when the school’s administrative director Lyle Augustine interviewed several witnesses who confirmed Curry’s account.

Complicating things further, reports by The Morning Call and a local television station described what had caused the student-teacher argument: Fisher’s alleged in-class use of the phrase “vo-tech style” to refer to a simplified version of her lesson. Flynn said the teacher was infuriated that the accusations were made public.

“Mrs. Fisher’s claim is that what she saw on TV made her physically ill,” Flynn said.

Curry and Flynn created The Babbitt in May 2000. From June until August of 2000, the paper suspended operations due to threats of legal action from Charles McHugh, dean of students at Panther Valley High School, which Curry, Flynn and Marks then attended. The paper reappeared online in fall 2001.

Evolving Cyberlaw and Limits
The legal rights of non-school student publications on the Internet have not been firmly established.

One of the first known incidents of school officials taking action against a student because of an independent Internet site occurred in 1995. Paul Kim, a senior honor student at Newport High School in Bellvue, Wash., created a Web site titled “The Newport High School Unofficial Home Page.” The satirical site included information on Kim’s friends and their preoccupation with football and sex. After viewing the site, the school’s principal contacted National Merit Scholarship officials and the colleges to which Kim had applied and rescinded the school’s recommendations. After Kim threatened to file a lawsuit, the school apologized, paid him $2,000 and reinstated their recommendations.

Since then, there have been many similar incidents reported. Mike Hansen of Edgewood Middle School in New Mexico was suspended for one day after he created a Web site that included a “Graffiti Wall” message board where students could post the names of other students they hated. Administrators found a printout of the page at school. After school officials learned that another student had distributed the printout, Hansen's original suspension, which was for distributing a “hateful” Web page, was changed to creating a “hostile and threatening environment.” When Hansen’s parents filed a complaint with the school, his suspension was removed from his record. Seventeen-year-old Aaron Fiehn of Belleview High School in Ocala, Fla., was suspended for 10 days for creating a Web site that used “vulgar language” to criticize the school. Fiehn was reinstated four days later after the American Civil Liberties Union got involved.

Most of these incidents, like those involving Kim, Hansen and Fiehn, are resolved short of litigation and almost always favor the student. However, a few courts have suggested that school officials may have the authority to punish students for their expression, regardless of the context in which it occurs, at least when the effects of that expression can be felt within the school.

There is no reason that the same rules that apply to print products would not apply to the online context. Computers and other facilities used to post student publications or Web sites are generally the property of the school. The amount of legal protection available to online journalists will, therefore, largely turn on whether the online publication is designated, through school policy and other factors, as a forum for free expression. Understanding the scope of the Hazelwood decision can get tricky.

These early cases provide limited guidance in predicting the scope of First Amendment protection for independent student speech on the Internet. While it is significant that the authority of school officials might reach to some private student speech on the Internet, it is important to keep in mind that the Tinker standard is still a very difficult standard for school officials to meet. Because Tinker recognizes the importance of independent thought and political speech, online underground newspapers with otherwise lawful stories (no libel, obscenity, etc.) that criticize school policies or teachers — stories that could be censored under Hazelwood but that would not satisfy the “material disruption” standard of Tinker— would be protected.

These cases are found on splc.org. For more information about cyberlaw and to review the cases that have gone to court, visit SPLC Legal Research.


BACK