Teacher sues eighth grader expelled for home page

Student files lawsuit against school district

PENNSYLVANIA -- A middle school teacher and principal are suing a former student for defaming them in his personal Web site.

Justin Swidler was expelled from Nitschmann Middle School in Bethlehem in August 1998 after school officials discovered his Web page. He and his family filed a lawsuit against the school, which is currently pending, in October 1998 to have the expulsion reversed.

Kathleen Fulmer, his former math teacher, filed a lawsuit against Swidler and his family in November 1998, claiming that Swidler's Web site defamed her character. In May 1999 the school principal, A. Thomas Kartsotis, also filed a similar lawsuit against the Swidler family.

Swidler was in the eighth grade when he created the Web page from his home. The page contained images of Fulmer and Kartsotis, comments about them and vulgar language. In one part of the site, a photo of Fulmer morphed into a picture of Adolf Hitler.

A Northampton County judge ruled last year that some of the material on the site may be considered defamatory and allowed the case to proceed. In January, one of Swidler's attorneys, Richard Maurer, filed a motion requiring the court to tell jurors exactly which parts of the Web site might legally be considered defamatory.

"We're not seeking to prevent the jury from seeing anything," Maurer said. "We are seeking for the jury to be instructed that only small portions of this Web site are potentially defamatory."

Maurer expects the lawsuits against the Swidler family to go to trial in the fall.

"The price [Swidler] has paid for speech has been very, very high," Maurer said.

reports, Spring 2000