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High school student wins parody case

A teenager who was suspended from high school for building a Web page mocking his assistant principal wins $10,000 in damages.

A teenager who was suspended from high school for building a Web page mocking his assistant principal has won $10,000 in damages.

Karl Beidler will receive payment from the North Thurston School District in Washington state because it was found that the school violated his freedom of speech, said the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the student in the case. The school district will also pay the ACLU $52,000 in attorney fees.

"The judge approved the damages this week," said ACLU spokesman Doug Honig.

The damages award follows a July 2000 ruling by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee that said public school officials cannot punish a student for speech outside of school.

In its argument to McPhee, the ACLU noted that Beidler created the Web site on his own time and using his own computer equipment.

"This case sends a message to public school administrators that they do not have the authority to punish students for expressing their opinions outside of school and without the use of any school resources," ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan said in a statement. "The First Amendment protects a student from being kicked out of school just because officials don't like what the student is saying."

Beidler was suspended from Timberline High School in Lacey, Wash., in 1999, after he constructed a Web site that showed images of the assistant principal in various parody situations, including having sex with the cartoon character Homer Simpson.

In other images, the administrator's head was superimposed onto an advertisement for Viagra, and there were suggestions that he smoked marijuana and flirted with male students.

"The student got a photo of the vice principal, I don't know if it was from the yearbook, and he set up putting the assistant principal in various parody situations," Honig said.

After discovering the Web site, the school suspended Beidler for one month. He later returned to an alternative school in the district, and the following year rejoined and graduated with his class at Timberline.

Honig explained that the damages award bolster's the ACLU's earlier victory on the Beidler case and sends a strong message to school districts.

"Our experience has been that with some school officials, they really get the message about not violating students' rights when there's a monetary penalty attached to it," Honig said.