Sending a clear signal to educators everywhere, a federal judge ruled Dec. 28 that Woodland School District in Marble Hill, Mo., violated a high school student’s free speech rights when it suspended him for posting a personal web page criticizing his school. The ruling makes clear that schools have no jurisdiction over what their students do in cyberspace, provided it’s done on their own time and from their own computers.

U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Sippel issued a preliminary injunction that prohibits the district from using the suspension against student Brandon Beussink in grade and attendance calculations. It also bars the district from punishing Beussink or restricting his ability to post his home page on the internet.

“Dislike or being upset by the content of a student’s speech is not an acceptable justification for limiting student speech,” Sippel wrote in his opinion.

Last February, Beussink, 17, and his sister used their parents’ home computer to establish a personal home page on the internet. Using occasionally vulgar language, the web site criticized the school’s official site. It also urged visitors to eMail the principal and inform a teacher that the school site was bad.

Links don’t matter

District officials had argued that Beussink’s site was causing a disruption, because it linked to the school’s web site. They also argued that Beussink’s profanity and slanderous speech were out of line.

The case is one of the first to reach the courts concerning students’ rights to free speech on the internet, said Deborah Jacobs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Beussink.

“Schools have no right to interfere with what students say on their own time outside of school, whether their thoughts appear in an underground newspaper or on the internet,” Jacobs said.

Another in a line

The Beussink case is one of several student-school clashes over free speech on the internet. Last March, a federal court ordered an Ohio district to reinstate a student who was suspended for using his home computer to create a web site disparaging his band teacher. The student sued and the school district later settled out of court for damages.

In 1995, a Washington state National Merit scholar had his scholarship revoked after posting a parody of the school to his web page.

In each case, the schools agreeing to pay the students financial settlements.

Beussink removed his home page from the internet after school officials complained. They also suspended him for 10 days and failed him for the semester as a result of his absences, the lawsuit said.

If the lost credits are not restored, Beussink won’t be able to graduate with his classmates this spring, the lawsuit said.

At deadline, school district offices were closed for the holidays and officials could not be reached for comment. Woodland R-IV School District

American Civil Liberties Union