The parent of a kindergartner locked in a dispute with the Norwich, Conn., school system allegedly expressed her displeasure by resorting to a knock-off web site (one whose web address differed from the school system’s official web address by only the three-letter suffix—”com” rather than “org”). The woman allegedly used the phony site to post private eMail messages meant for school staff but sent to her by mistake. The re-directed eMail included messages containing a test outline and a personal cancer diagnosis, officials said.

The web site allegedly was set up in May by Marcia Wilbur, a parent who reportedly was upset at the school system for suspending her kindergarten-age son for rough behavior toward other students. Wilbur has since moved to Arizona but she maintains the faux site, updating it with complaints about issues ranging from school-playground safety to district business practices.

Recently, electronic messages meant for teachers and school staff but erroneously sent to the wrong eMail address have been posted on the phony site. About 30 messages to teachers and staff reportedly were sent to Wilbur’s address accidentally, including a rough outline of a science vocabulary test. Wilbur posted the test prominently.

Other posted eMail messages included casual greetings from friends and family members and intensely personal messages about a person diagnosed with cancer and another with a blood-pressure problem.

Wilbur told the Associated Press in November that she made efforts to contact the messages’ senders to tell them their messages were going to the wrong site. But she said she was within her rights to post the messages.

“There’s nothing confidential about them,” Wilbur said. “Those eMails came to my web site. I just feel I have the freedom to do it.”

Wilbur also defended her web site, saying she is trying to expose dangers to children.

Norwich school officials said their best response to the web site is to ignore it. Administrators did warn staff to make sure everyone who sends mail to them uses the correct address.

“It’s a common and simple mistake” to send eMail to the wrong address, said Craig Wood, a partner at the McGuire Woods law firm in Charlottesville, Va. “This is someone who is capitalizing on it.”

He said the Electronic Communication Privacy Act (EPCA) makes it a criminal offense to intercept private eMail without consent—so school officials could legally challenge this if they wanted to.

“Some schools allow teachers to receive private eMail,” Wood said. “If that’s the case, then certainly, it’s private.”

He added that Wilbur should be deleting the mail or forwarding it to the intended recipient. The situation should be treated as if one received a neighbor’s mail by mistake, he said.

“If I started opening [a neighbor’s] mail, knowing it’s his mail, I’m in violation of the federal postal statue,” Wood said. “When eMail became a popular mode of communication, there was no statue that prohibited [this]—so Congress passed one, the EPCA.”

On her web site, Wilbur said the Norwich Public Schools could have prevented this from happening altogether by paying the $40 it cost to register the “.com” domain name.

Margaret-Ann Howie, legal counsel for Baltimore County Public Schools, said just because the school system didn’t do this “doesn’t give anyone the right to damage their reputation.”

Wood agreed: “Private citizens ought not be able to usurp school addresses.”

Though school districts don’t have the same interest in their names as businesses, Wood said, districts can register their names as trademarks to protect their rights in cases such as this one.

“Most schools wouldn’t think to register their name as a trademark—but if they are going to make a web site with intellectual property, they can register their name as a trademark,” he said. Wilbur “has a First Amendment right to post [opinions about the district], but she doesn’t have a right to use [the district’s name] if they have done something to protect it.”

Links:

Norwich Public Schools
http://www.norwichschools.org

Marcia Wilbur’s web site
http://www.norwichschools.com

McGuire Woods Law Firm
http://www.mcguirewoods.com

Baltimore County Public Schools
http://www.bcps.org