I got a fair amount of eMail in response to my April column about censorship of student newspapers by public school administrators. Although I received a broad range of commentsboth pro and conabout publishing the content of school newspapers on the open internet, there was one common thread woven through almost all of the letters. In a few words, the concerns focused on the question, “What can we do about student web sites?”
Ever since it was revealed by the national media that one of the student terrorists involved in the Columbine High School incident had made some threats in a posting on the internet, school officials have been concerned about the potential for violence and disruption originating off-campus on web sites not connected to or controlled by the district.
The random posting of a threatening message on a newsgroup or in an AOL or Yahoo! chat room may be virtually impossible to control or detect, but in cases where students set up their own web pages, school officials want to know when they can take action against a student who publishes material they think is offensive to teachers, staff, or other students or is disruptive of school operations. While there have been very few court actions in this area, a pattern is slowly beginning to emerge that may provide some guidance if followed with some common sense, restraint, and creativity.
One thing is clear: Most of the time, when a principal or other official takes action against a student for something on the student’s private web site, it is legally an overreaction. A very recent example was the five-day suspension meted out to Nick Emmett, an 18-year-old senior who created the “Unofficial Kentlake High School Home Page” as an after-school project, using his own resources.
In a typically tasteless teen-age attempt at humor, the site featured fake obituaries of Nick’s buddies (including one that had his classmate expiring from some ghastly sexually transmitted affliction) and solicited nominations for future mock eulogies. One visitor to the AOL-based web site posted a picture of the school principal, captioned, “I wanna die, pick me, pick me!” The local TV news got wind of the web site and, in typical “sweeps week” fashion (or the typical sensationalist fashion that has come to characterize the local TV newsone that has been described aptly as “if it bleeds, it leads”), reported that the web site contained a “hit list” of future victims.
The student removed the web site, but Principal Dick Campbell suspended Nick for five days because he found the web site “intimidating and harassing” and concluded that it disrupted the classroom. The student, whose 3.95 grade average and position as co-captain of the school basketball team were no deterrent to the principal’s wrath, got an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and sued, winning an injunction from a U.S. District Court judge, who agreed that the suspension for out-of-school activity ran afoul of the First Amendment.
Constitutional violations aside, there is clearly a need for restraint in dealing with the off-campus speech of students. Like “underground” student newspapers, web sites not owned or controlled by the school (and not accessed or created on school computers, which is a whole different issue) are essentially privateand students creating and using them are subject to the same protections as students who print anti-school leaflets and hand them out after school at the local mall.
Cases like Emmett v. Kentlake School District not only generate unnecessary legal fees (and can disrupt and divide the community and the school); they can make a dent in the school budget. In a recent Ohio case, the court ordered the school to pay $30,000 in damages to a wrongfully suspended student who had made disparaging remarks about his band director on the internet.
It is possible for a student to go too far, and when actual physical threats of violence are made, as was the case where a Lehigh Valley, Pa., high school student used his web site to solicit donations to help hire a hit man to kill his math teacher, the court will back school officials who take action.
In cases that involve actual threats of violence, the proper action for a principal is to call the police, not call the student on the carpet and suspend him. However, the vast majority of cases involve school officials who are embarrassed or upset by crude, disparaging, insensitive, off-base, or just plain stupid things on a student web site. In these cases, a more successful approach (that includes minimal involvement by lawyers and judges) might take a more creative tack, perhaps involving a sense of humor. Sometimes educating students rather than using punishment to control their behavior is also a good way to avoid unnecessary legal bills.