Your Decision: Punishment for a Personal Web Site?
A high school
junior creates a Web site on his home computer, on his own time.
Using vulgar language, he is very critical of the administration,
the teachers and the approved Web site at his school. Although his
site is not intended to be accessed at school, a classmate learns
about the site and shows it to the computer teacher. School administrators
suspend the student for 10 days. He already has eight unexcused
absence days and the district’s absenteeism policy (that drop students’
grades in each class by one letter grade for each unexcused absence
in excess of 10 days) means that he fails all his classes that semester.
The student files a lawsuit challenging the suspension as violating
his First Amendment rights, claiming that the 10-day suspension
and failing grades are unfair penalties, especially since he did
not intend for students to view the site at school.
It’s decision time. With whom do you agree?
The principal, who believes that the faculty and the school
have been damaged by the vulgar references to them on the
The student, who is concerned not only about his First Amendment
rights, but about how his failing grades will affect his admission
into a college of his choice.
A student at the school who considers the junior a troublemaker:
“Too bad if the suspension drops his grades and makes him fail.
He knew the school policy. He wouldn’t have eight unexcused
absences if he really cared about school and college. He could
have written for the school Web site, but he wants to be a rebel.
He deserves the punishment.” You know the Supreme Court cases
involving student rights. Which apply in this situation? What
would you do? Would you remove your Web site from the Internet?
What would you do about your unexcused absences?
Punishment for a Personal Web Site? -
Background for Discussion
The Real Situation
The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
explained the Missouri case as follows: “Brandon Beussink created
the home page outside of school time on his home computer. The Web
site caused no documented disturbance at his school. The principal
suspended Beussink for 10 days and ordered him to ‘clean up’ or
‘clean out’ the home page.
“Buessink did remove the home page from the Internet and served
the suspension, but his suspension caused his grades to drop significantly.
[He had 8.5 unexcused absence days. His school district’s absenteeism
policy drops students’ grades in each class by one letter grade
for each unexcused absence in excess of 10 days.] The American Civil
Liberties Union (of Eastern Missouri) brought suit on behalf of
the student and his parents, seeking an injunction to prevent the
school from using the student’s suspension as a means to lower his
“Citing Tinker’s “material and substantially interfere[s]”
standard, which states that unless ‘engaging in the forbidden conduct
would materially and substantially interfere with the requirements
of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school, the prohibition
cannot be sustained,’ the court ruled that the principal’s simply
disliking or being upset by the content of a student’s expression
was not an acceptable justification for limiting it.”
Evolving Internet Law and Limits
The legal rights of non-school student publications on
the Internet are in their infancy. At this stage, decisions are
not simple — the law is still evolving.
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 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 ACLU
Unlike the Missouri case in this activity, the courts in Pennsylvania
stood behind the Bethlehem Area School District when it expelled
an eighth grade student at Nitschmann Middle School. He had created
a Web site on his home computer called Teacher Sux. In addition
to offensive comments about his principal, it showed his algebra
teacher with her head severed and her face morphing into that of
Adolf Hitler. He wrote that the teacher should die and indicated
he wanted to raise money to hire a hit man.
The teacher was so upset that she sought a year’s medical leave
of absence and the principal claimed that his reputation had been
damaged. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court upheld the expulsion
of the student, saying that the school district could discipline
students for expressive conduct occurring outside of school “where
it is established that the conduct materially and substantially
interferes with the educational process.”
In this confusing environment, the Association for Supervision
and Curriculum Development advises:
Action can be taken against student speech originating outside
of school only if:
- The district can show a direct link between the student expression
and school disruption, and
- The disciplinary action imposed by the district is taken for
the right reason.
If the online newspaper is placed on the school’s Web site, SPLC
- If the online newspaper is placed on the school’s Web site,
SPLC advises:If the school has established a “policy or practice”
of allowing free expression by allowing student editors to control
the content of the online edition, the forum is open and students
continue to have editorial control.
- If an online edition has not yet been established, the school
may or may not allow the publication to be called a public forum.
Go to the legal research section on splc.org for more information.
for the most recent Internet decisions.