U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Sippel yesterday granted a preliminary injunction against the Woodland School District in Marble Hill, Missouri, to prevent the school from using a 10-day suspension against 17-year-old Brandon Beussink in calculating his grades and attendance.
Beussink was suspended in February after he posted critical comments about his high school on a Web site he created using his personal Internet account. A classmate who accessed the site using school computers informed teachers about it. The principal suspended Beussink after he saw the site on one of the school's computers, said Kenneth McManaman, an attorney for the school district. The school also asked Beussink to take down the site and Beussink complied immediately but still was suspended.
Beussink's profanity-laced Web site took issue with how the school treated its students, and lambasted its faculty. The posting also encouraged visitors to email the school's principal to express disapproval of the school's Web site.
The suspension caused Buessink to lose school credit, and forced him to attend summer school so as not to lose his standing as a senior, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit against the school in August.
The case, according to legal experts and the ACLU, is the first involving freedom of speech on the Internet to reach a federal court. It heightens the already controversial debate over the boundaries of online speech and expression, and over the extent to which constitutional rights apply to material published on the Internet, as compared with other media.
Similar cases have been heard in court in the past, but none have advanced this far in the legal process, the ACLU said.
In 1995, high school student Paul Kim won a settlement after his school suspended him for posting a Web site that parodied the school. Last spring, an Ohio student won a $30,000 settlement after his school suspended him for "insulting" his band teacher on his Web site.
And earlier this year, 13-year-old Aaron Smith of McKinney, Texas, created a now-defunct spoof site on his home computer, dubbed the "Chihuahua Haters of the World," and was suspended from his school after it was contacted by an offended Chihuahua lover. School officials accused Aaron of creating an "animal hate group" and said he had violated the school's Internet Acceptable Use policy, even though the site was not linked to the school. Aaron was also removed from his computer class for one year without his parents' knowledge, and when they learned of Aaron's punishment they decided to contact the ACLU. In the end, Aaron was reinstated in his computer class and the suspension was wiped from his record.
First Amendment attorney Jonathan Albano of law firm Bingham Dana LLP said that Beussink's online protest was created from his home on a private line. Schools never have been able to take action against a profane expression of belief conducted in a private household, he said.
"It stretches it to say that kids can't engage in any profanity off school grounds," Albano said. "I think it's significant in that the school can reach out and punish you for using [profanity] off campus.
"This Web site is certainly offensive, but if the administration says it's the language that's offensive, in order to apply to that rule, it has to be even-handed," he added. "They should be punishing everyone who [uses profanity] outside of school."
Albano said also that, while Beussink's page was offensive, his actions did not impede the school's functions, or its daily operations as an institution for learning.
"It's simply the function of the fact that people are taken by the technology and erroneously assume that completely different rules apply," he said. "What the student was doing shouldn't be different than if the student was using handbills [as a form of protest]."