Board reverses decision to fine, punish student Web hosts for chat room threat

Officials will not charge site's creators cost of closing school

WASHINGTON -- Three high school students who were fined and suspended in November after a stranger posted an anonymous death threat on a Web site they created successfully appealed to the school board to have the decision reversed.

The students from Eastlake High School in Sammamish created the Web site from their homes as a forum for their classmates. It included a message board and a chat room, both of which were used by students to talk and share gossip.

In late October of last year, an unknown user signed on to the site and threatened to kill Eastlake High School students. The three Web page creators contacted the high school and shut down the site in an effort to help authorities discover who had posted the threat. Administrators decided to close the school the following day.

School officials then punished the students for creating the site, suspending them for five days and fining them $500 each -- 10 percent of the cost of closing school for a day. Officials later reduced the fine to 25 hours of community service.

The students and their families appealed the punishment to the school board with the help of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. In February, the board decided not to require the students to pay a fine or perform community service and erased the suspension, which the students had already served, from their records.

Doug Honig, a spokesman for the ACLU of Washington, said he was pleased with the board's decision.

"We're happy," he said. "Although they should never have been suspended in the first place."

In a press release following the decision, Aaron Caplan, an attorney with the ACLU of Washington, accused the school of using the students as scapegoats. He also expressed concern that the school's administration was holding the students accountable for the actions of others.

"The school does not have the authority to impose discipline on students for speech outside of school and certainly not for providing a forum for free speech by others," he said.

Julya Hampton, legal program director for the ACLU of Washington, likened the role the students played to the role of a telephone company.

"We believe that it is unfair for the school district to discipline students because of statements posted by others on their Web site," she said. "It is like going after the phone company for a threat made over the telephone."

It was later discovered that the Web site threat was posted by a student from Arizona State University. He called police to turn himself in once he learned that Eastlake High School had been closed and said he posted the message as a joke. In March he was sentenced to two years of probation and 80 hours of community service.

reports, Spring 2000