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ACLU sues over student site

The ACLU sues a Missouri school district, charging that it violated a student's free speech rights when it suspended him for content on his Web site.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against a school district in Missouri, charging that it violated a student's free speech rights when it suspended him for posting criticism of teachers and administrators on his Web site.

Brandon Beussink's personal site made fun of the Woodland High School in Marble Hill, Missouri, where he was a junior last semester, and urged students to send email to school officials complaining about the site. Beussink's site also listed gripes about how students were treated by administrators and teachers.

Although he complied immediately with the school's demand to remove the material, Beussink, 16, was suspended for ten days in February, and then failed the entire semester due to his absences, according to the ACLU.

"I think that the school should practice what it teaches," Beussink said in a statement. "We study history and we study the Constitution, but the school doesn't seem to think that it applies to them."

The first hearing in the lawsuit is expected in October--and time is precious. Beussink is fighting for the chance to make up credits he lost because of the suspension. Unless the ACLU wins the case, he may not graduate on time next June, according to the suit. The group also is asking the federal court to have the suspension removed from Beussink's record and to restore his status as a senior when school starts.

"What he does on his own time, with his own computer, and his own intellect, is not something the school can punish him for," Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said today. "They are denying his right to an education.

"The Internet is just a new avenue to get ideas out, and it distresses these school administrators," she added. "This kid learned a lesson a from his school: censorship."

The Supreme Court ruled that schools can control the content of student newspapers if they are set up as part of curriculum, and that schools can prohibit protests that disrupt class work. But the ACLU and other legal experts say Woodland R-IV School District overstepped its boundaries by suspending Beussink because of content on his private Web site.

The Woodland district argued that the site was causing a disruption because it linked to the school's official site.

The district was not immediately available for comment, but in a May 5 letter to the ACLU's director in Missouri, Denise Lieberman, the district's attorney, Kenneth McManaman, explained the school's action. The letter also cited at least ten other incidents that the district claims led to Beussink's suspension, such as an accusation that he placed obscenity on a school computer screen saver last October, and that he distracted students during class.

"Brandon's conduct undermined the values the school was trying to teach," McManaman wrote.

"In addition to being slanderous, it was profane and obscene and inappropriate for educational purposes," he added. "Instead of continuing to whine, I would suggest that Mr. Beussink suck it up, take his punishment like a man, get back to school, and start behaving like he should in the classroom."

The ACLU has gotten involved in at least one other case regarding a student's private Web site.

In April, a student who insulted his band teacher on his Web site was awarded $30,000 after suing his Cleveland, Ohio, school district. Sean O'Brien, a student of Westlake High School, was suspended for the remarks. In return for the settlement, the student dropped a lawsuit claiming the school board violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

In another example, a high school senior in Florida also criticized his school and said the assistant principal had the "personality of sour milk" on his private Web site, according to the Student Press Law Center. Kyle Stevens, a student at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School, was suspended for ten days, but with the ACLU's help, he got the punishment reduced.

In some cases, schools have simply appealed to Net access or Web site hosts to remove controversial sites erected by their students. Last July, GeoCities cited its terms of service when it voluntarily shut down a Web site that rated the looks and sex appeal of students and teachers at a Palo Alto, California, middle school.

"Schools have somewhat greater leeway to regulate students' speech within the school, than for example the government has to regulate adult speech," said David Cole, a constitutional law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. "But as far as I know, that greater leeway has never been extended to student speech outside the school setting, nor should it."

Cole said students do not give up First Amendment rights when they enter a school, either. "Their speech should not be regulated unless it creates a substantial disruption in school," he added. "[The school district is] on even weaker ground when they seek to regulate speech outside the four walls of the school."