A federal judge has ruled that a Michigan school district violated a student’s rights to free speech and due process when it suspended him for posting “intimidation and threats” on the internet, proving once again that schools face a slippery slope when trying to discipline students for web site postings that occur outside of school.

The Waterford School District should not have suspended the student in August 2001 for contributing to “Satan’s web page,” U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan ruled last week.

School officials were concerned by content that included a passage labeled “Satan’s mission for you this week.” It read: “Stab someone for no reason then set them on fire throw them off of a cliff, watch them suffer and with their last breath, just before everything goes black, spit on their face.”

The student, who was not identified, was suspended after a hearing in which he wasn’t allowed to cross-examine witnesses and could not be represented by an attorney, said his lawyer, Richard Landau.

The student sued the district, seeking damages of up to $75,000. He has since graduated from a school in a neighboring district.

The ruling is the latest in a string of decisions that side with students in similar cases.

In 1999, a federal judge ruled that the Woodland School District in Missouri violated a student’s free-speech rights when it suspended him for posting a personal web page criticizing his school. And in 1998, the Westlake School District in Ohio was ordered to pay $30,000 in damages to a student who was suspended for making fun of his band teacher online.

School officials have more latitude to discipline students for web site postings that occur outside of school, yet disrupt the school environment—as in a direct threat against the school or its occupants. But in the Waterford case, the judge ruled that the posting did not constitute a direct threat to any particular individuals.

Waterford school representatives and the attorney representing the district did not return a reporter’s phone calls seeking comment.

Links:

“Use restraint when dealing with offensive student web sites” (eSchool News Ethics & Law column, June 2000)
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=168

“Court to school district: You can’t stop a kid from creating a personal web site critical of your schools” (eSchool News, February 1999)
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=934

“District must pay teacher-bashing student $30K” (eSchool News, May 1998)
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=1117