A Kent, Wash., high school student can continue to publish an alternative, unofficial web site about his school, after a federal judge in Seattle decided on Feb. 23 not to issue a restraining order sought by the student’s school district. Chief Judge John Coughenour of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington also indicated that the school’s five-day suspension of the student likely violated his right to free speech.
School officials say they are troubled by Nick Emmett’s site because it features, among other things, mock obituaries of students at Kentlake High School. School officials across the country are worried that web-based threats by students may indicate or even lead to outbreaks of violence. But civil libertarians and free-speech advocates say that students have rights to publish on the webparticularly in a situation like this one, since Emmett did not use school time or equipment to create or maintain his web site.
While acknowledging that the school district “argues, persuasively, that school administrators are in an acutely difficult position after recent school shootings in Colorado, Oregon, and other places,” Judge Coughenour placed the burden of proof on the school district to show that that the mock obituaries “were intended to threaten anyone, did actually threaten anyone, or manifested any violent tendencies whatsoever.”
The case may become a precedent for other student online free-speech cases, said Ann Beeson, a lawyer who specializes in internet cases at the American Civil Liberties Union. Case law in this area is somewhat limited and contradictory, as primary cases have stated that speech which “disrupts” a school can be suppressed, but “disruptive” speech is difficult to define.
Emmett claimed that his site began as a joke that soon spiraled out of control. Starting with a list of his friends and the embarrassing ways they allegedly died, Emmett soon solicited votes from fellow students about who else should die. A local television station broadcast an account of the site and indicated that Emmett’s list was a “hit list,” though Emmett neither used the term nor indicated that he wished harm upon anyone. With publicity aroused, the school principal suspended Emmett, a top scholar and member of the school’s basketball team, for five days.
For analysis of a student’s rights to publish information about his school, visit the Student Press Law Center web site at http://www.splc.org/report/s98report/s98p28a. html.