It’s 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?

1.____

The principal, who believes that the faculty and the school have been damaged by the vulgar references to them on the Web site.

2.____ 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.

3.____

 

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 grades.

“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 got involved.

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 advises:

  • 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.

Visit www.splc.org for the most recent Internet decisions.


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