Students fight Internet censorship, restrictions

Pennsylvania student expelled in December for an online conversation with a friend has filed a lawsuit against his private high school.

In the America Online Instant Messenger conversation, which took place from the students' homes, the student said "stupid people should be banished or killed." At the end of the conversation he said he did not really think stupid people should be killed, instead saying they were annoying.

How school authorities at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood received a transcript of the exchange is uncertain. The headmaster wrote in a letter to parents that a school chaperone turned over a transcript of the conversation after becoming alarmed by its contents. But the student's mother argued that another student shared the transcript with others because he found it funny.

The student's attorney, Philip M. Stinson, stressed that issues of privacy and wire-intercept laws are fundamental to the case.

"This was real-time conversation ... that has no expectation of being recorded, duplicated or sent on to others," Stinson told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Rather than agree to restrictions presented by their school board, the staff members of a Kansas high school newspaper decided in January that they will no longer post an online version of the paper.

The school board had presented the staff of the Maize High School Express with a set of options for online publishing after staff members fought a board policy preventing them from including the last names or identifiable photographs of students in the online version of their newspaper without a signed consent form from the students' parents.

The options included using an in-house Web network that could only be accessed from school district computers; including only the last names and identifiable photographs of students who had parental permission; requiring a password to view the online edition; or not posting the paper online at all. The Express staff chose the final option and no longer publish an online version of the newspaper.

Kris Hinson, current managing editor of the Express, said choosing one of the other options would have prevented the staff from reaching a wider audience because only students and staff in the school district would have had access to it. He also said staff members feared the consequences of being held responsible if they accidentally included the name or photo of a student in the online edition who had not returned a signed consent form.

A Washington student expelled from school in February 1999 for a satirical Web page he created is suing the school district.

Karl Beidler, a junior at Timberline High School in Lacey at the time, created the page from home. It included a picture of his vice principal in various fictional settings as well as numerous disclaimers stating that the pictures were all parodies created from Beidler's imagination.

School officials saw the site and expelled Beidler for the remainder of the school year for "exceptional misconduct," according to an American Civil Liberties Union press release.

The North Thurston School District eventually allowed Beidler to enroll in another district school to complete the year. The district also agreed to erase the expulsion from Beidler's permanent record.

The lawsuit is still pending. Beidler and his attorneys are seeking damages for the expulsion. They also want a decision in Beidler's favor to make clear that students cannot be punished for speech made outside of school.    

reports, Spring 2000