Student suspended for Web site wins free-speech lawsuit against district

Judge says Internet does not alter First Amendment rights

WASHINGTON -- A superior court judge ruled in July that the North Thurston County School District violated the constitutional rights of a student who was suspended for ridiculing a school administrator on his personal Web site.

Judge Thomas McPhee found that because former Timberline High School student Karl Beidler's Web site was not an on-campus activity and did not create a substantial disruption of the school day, school officials were not justified in punishing him for it. Beidler v. North Thurston Sch. Dist., No. 99-2-00236-6, (Thurston Cty. Super. Ct. July 18, 2000).

"Even with the vastly increased opportunity to speak and be heard created by the Internet, the exceptions to First Amendment protection for student speech remain narrowly drawn even for immature and foolishly defiant students such as Mr. Beidler," McPhee said in his decision. "Schools can and will adjust to the new challenges created by such students and the Internet, but not at the expense of the First Amendment."

Timberline High School officials expelled Beidler in January 1999 after discovering his Web site, which included images of the school's assistant principal having sex with cartoon character Homer Simpson. After missing a month of classes, Beidler was allowed to enroll in an alternative school. He returned to Timberline last fall and has since graduated.

In his ruling, McPhee cited the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District and Thomas v. Board of Education, a case decided in 1979 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In Tinker, the Court ruled that public school students had the right to wear black armbands to school as a symbol of protest against the Vietnam War. The Second Circuit ruled in Thomas that students could not be suspended for distributing an underground newspaper off school property.

"Since [the Second Circuit's] opinion in 1979, the landscape upon which the line where the balance tips from protected speech for students to permissible punitive power for school administrators has changed dramatically," McPhee said. "The Internet marks that landscape change as dramatically as the Front Range marks the end of the Great Plains. But while the landscape has changed, the line has not. Today the First Amendment protects students' speech to the same extent as in 1979 or 1969."

Robert Hedrick, an ACLU of Washington cooperating attorney who represented Beidler, called the ruling "a victory for students across the country."

"This case says students have First Amendment rights when posting Web pages on the Internet," Hedrick said.

Beidler said he was pleased with the judge's decision, adding that school officials blew the situation out of proportion.

"[The site] was just a joke," Beidler said. "It was never intended to be viewed by the entire world."

Fall 2000, reports