A high school teacher could be out of a job in a dispute over a personal web site he created before he was hired by a western Pennsylvania school district. But the state’s teachers union has vowed to defend his right to free expression on the web, arguing that the site has nothing to do with his in-school behavior.
The Grove City Area School District placed music teacher and assistant band director Dan Konnen, 24, of Hermitage, Pa., on an unpaid suspension in March when students found his personal web site, which contains jokes about genitalia and scatological references extracted from the controversial Comedy Central cartoon series South Park, as well as other sources.
When visited by an eSchool News reporter in April, the site said it was created in December 1997 and last updated in September 2001, meaning Konnen had updated it at least once since being hired by the school district in August 2001.
Pennsylvania State Education Association attorney Tod Park, who is representing Konnen, said the web site doesn’t contain pornography and Konnen didn’t tell students about it.
“He talks about who he is. There are pictures of him fully clothed in [high school] band camp. There [are] horoscopes and jokes,” Park said. “Most high school students have access to far more objectionable material.”
Nevertheless, the incident adds another wrinkle to the legal dilemmas of schools in the internet ageand begs the question of whether teachers who maintain personal web sites should be held accountable by their employers for material posted to the internet outside of school and intended for personal use.
Similar controversies have erupted over the discovery of potentially offensive, student-created web sites, many of which have been accused of unfairly chastising teachers and insulting fellow students.
In these cases, schools so far have had little success in punishing students for their online antics outside of school. In fact, in some cases, schools have been forced to pay several thousand dollars in legal damages to students who were wrongly suspended for web sites created on their own free time. (See “Use restraint when dealing with offensive student web sites,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/PFshowstory.cfm?ArticleID=168.)
But what happens when the web site is the product of a school system employee, and not a student?
The school board has begun the process to dismiss Konnen on the grounds of “immorality, incompetence, intemperance, persistent negligence,” and other reasons, said district Superintendent Robert Post.
The teachers union plans to file a grievance on Konnen’s behalf, Park said, adding, “It may come down to a First Amendment issue.”
Maybe. But some legal experts say Konnen’s constitutional right to free speech might not be enough to spare his job in this case.
According to Craig Wood, an attorney for the law firm McGuire Woods LLP who specializes in education law, the decision to terminate a teacher’s contract eventually boils down to community sentiment.
If students’ parents are offended to the point that they no longer feel comfortable placing their children under the teacher’s supervision, there’s a good chance the controversy might claim his job, Wood said.
He added that if a school district can prove there is a nexus between the employee’s off-duty conduct and his effectiveness in the classroom, then it is justified in taking action against the teacher.
Unfortunately for Konnen, that includes notoriety, Wood said. If too many students have seen the web site and its content is disturbing the daily ebb and flow of classroom activities, then the district could consider a termination based on these disruptions.
Before the allegations, just over 300 people had accessed the web site in question. However, since news of the controversy broke in mid-April, the site already had taken on more than 1,000 additional hits as of press time.
Another question that potentially could discredit a free-speech defense on Konnen’s behalf is whether the content on his web site is in violation of the district’s acceptable-use policy, which Konnen would have signed when he was hired as a teacher, Wood said.
Of broader concern is whether or not Konnen’s web site was in violation of school and state codes regarding acceptable conduct of school system employees, Wood said.
The school district did not respond to an eSchool News reporter’s telephone calls regarding these specific policies.
Despite potential problems, Park said he is confident in his client’s defense.
“The real question is going to be whether the web site is immoral,” he said. “I don’t think it sinks to that standard.”
Park said Konnen has yet to receive formal notification of any charges filed against him by the district.
According to Park, Konnen was not aware of any requests to take the web site down and there were as yet no immediate plans to deactivate the site. Park said it will be three or four months before legal hearings are held on the matter.
The web site is one reason Konnen could be fired, but the school board has other reasons, too, Superintendent Post told the Associated Press. He declined to elaborate, however, because it’s a personnel issue.
Dan Konnen’s web site
Grove City Area School District
McGuire Woods LLP