ACLU hits Missouri school district with internet free-speech lawsuit: Student suspended over web site content

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against a Missouri school district on behalf of a student who was disciplined for criticizing school officials on his personal web page. The federal suit charges Woodland High School of Marble Hill, Mo., with violating the free-speech rights of Brandon Beussink, 16, when it suspended him for 10 days last semester.

Beussink had used a home computer to create a web page in February, where he criticized the school’s official web site and directed profanity at individual administrators, teachers, and school policies. Beussink’s site also included a link to the school’s site and urged visitors to eMail the school’s principal.

Though he immediately complied with the school’s demand to remove his web site, Beussink was suspended for 10 days, according to the ACLU. Under the district’s suspension policy, Beussink was not allowed to make up the work he missed during that period, and he failed several classes.

The ACLU’s lawsuit asks that Beussink’s suspension be wiped from his records and that he be allowed to make up the work that he missed. Should the school’s decision stand, Buessink–who was a junior last semester when he was suspended–would not be able to graduate with his classmates next spring, the ACLU said.

In justifying the suspension, the district criticized Beussink for using profanity and slanderous speech about school officials on his site. The district also said that Beussink’s site was causing a disruption because it linked to the school’s official web site.

But the ACLU and other legal experts said the district overstepped its authority.

Schools have somewhat greater leeway to regulate students’ speech within the school than, for example, the government has to regulate adult speech, David Cole, a constitutional law professor at the Georgetown Univeristy Law Center, told online news source C/Net. “But as far as I know, that greater leeway has never been extended to student speech outside the school setting, nor should it.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that schools can control the content of student newspapers if they are part of the curriculum and can prohibit protests that disrupt classes. But experts say the Woodland case fits neither of these scenarios.

“What he does on his own time, with his own computer and his own intellect, is not something the school can punish him for,” said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU’s eastern Missouri branch. “They are denying his right to an education.”

The ACLU has intervened in at least one other case involving a student’s right to free speech on a private web site. In May, a high school senior in Florida was suspended for ten days for criticizing his school and administrators on his web site, but with the ACLU’s help, he got the punnishment reduced.

In April, an Ohio student was awarded $30,000 from his district. In return for the settlement, Sean O’Brien, a student at Westlake High School in Cleveland, agreed to drop his lawsuit claiming the school violated his free-speech rights when it suspended him for insulting his band teacher on his web site.

School districts do have another option in protecting their students and staff members from vulgarity directed at them on the web, experts say, without violating a student’s right to free speech: they can appeal to the student’s web site host to remove a controversial site.

In July, web site host GeoCities cited terms of its service agreement when it voluntarily shut down a web site that rated the looks and sex appeal of students and teachers at a Palo Alto, Calif., middle school.

American Civil Liberties Union

Woodland R-IV School District


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