On-line 'heckling' gets student suspended

Court may be asked to decide if school authority extends beyond school into cyberspace

\nGEORGIA - "It is a wonder how we cause so much trouble\nand avoid recieving [sic] the proper punishment."

So boasted 14-year-old Matt Foreman, a.k.a. Natasha, on his home-created\nWeb site, "Natasha's Heckling Page." That is until\nLawrenceville's Five Forks Middle School administrators found\nout about the page, and Foreman was punished.

But was the punishment proper? For documenting the ways he and\nhis friends attempt to disrupt class and making fun of his teachers,\nthe principal and the school on his Web page, Foreman was suspended\nfrom school in February for 18 weeks.

The school says this is a disciplinary issue. Foreman, school\nadministrators say, violated three rules in the disciplinary handbook:\ndisrupting the school's mission, making written contact of a threatening\nor provoking nature to a school employee and repeated violation\nof school rules.

But Foreman disagrees, saying this is a First Amendment issue,\nand with the attention his case has been getting many people seem\nto agree with him.

The American Civil Liberties Union has defended Foreman in local\nnewspapers, and when he appeared on a local morning radio talk\nshow in the beginning of February, his Web site received 20-30\nhits per minute.

The talk show host, Neal Boortz, even defended Foreman on his\nown Web site, saying schools have a right to discipline students\non school property, but that right ends when the student goes\nhome.

"This is a clear, unambiguous, blatant, frightening, unconscionable\nviolation of the First Amendment rights of Matt Foreman,"\nBoortz said on his Web site.

The first court ruling on this issue seems to back up Boortz's\nview. A federal judge ruled in December that a Missouri school\ncould not punish a student who used a Web site created at home\nto criticize his school.

But thus far, the Five Forks Middle School is standing by its\npunishment. Michael Paglise, Foreman's attorney, appealed the\npunishment to the school board in March, but the board refused\nto overrule the administration.

"We are now bringing a civil rights lawsuit against the Gwinnett\nCounty School District," Paglise said.

Paglise said that Foreman has moved in with family members in\nNorth Carolina and is attending school there. He says Foreman's\nWeb site is still posted on the Internet, and school officials\nat his new school have no problem with it.

Foreman himself is unapologetic. After receiving criticism for\nhis actions, Foreman responded on his Web site, "I am not\ngoing to be a bum like some of you people think. ...I have so\nmany things that I can do so please don't judge me from the things\nI do in class."\n

reports, Spring 1999