Libel Lessons

What do students learn about free speech from teachers who sue them for defamation?

Brian Condradt said 11 of his teachers worshipped Satan, while Justin Swidler likened his math teacher to Adolf Hitler.

And Joey Harrison and eight of his friends published a parody paper threatening to rape "the most fucked up teacher" on campus.

The common thread: They all ended up in court, facing charges of libel and invasion of privacy by those from whom they are supposed to learn. One case was dismissed. One was settled. Three are still pending.

Educators drew a line in the sand, said their students' speech crossed it and asked the courts to render judgment. The incidents remind students that they are not exempt from the limitations of libel law. And they raise the question of whether the rights of students might be affected by such cases and whether the weight or fear of litigation might chill their speech.

Considering these questions sparks a variety of reactions from educators, lawyers, journalists and First Amendment fighters.

One angle dismisses these teacher-student disputes as isolated and personal, having little role in the First Amendment debate. Another says baseless teacher-filed libel suits do indeed leave a chilling effect on student expression and thus are a potential, if not outright, threat to school-sponsored and non-school-sponsored speech. Still another view says there are no sure bets other than the necessity that all parties involved work to balance students' rights with the rights of their educators.

David Lake, whose son Ian was expelled from Milford High School in Utah in May 2000, said the legal battle now waged between Ian and his former principal, Walter Schofield, is nothing more than a mud-slinging contest born out of "hurt feelings."

"This thing is getting to the point where I think it's just two little kids that hurt each other's feelings and can't get over it," he said. "I think they should have just walked away."

Ian posted a Web site from his home computer in May that called Schofield the "town drunk" and disparaged other students and faculty at Milford High School.

Local prosecutors charged Ian with criminal libel under Utah code, and he now faces a civil libel suit brought by Schofield. Additionally, Ian has filed a claim of his own against the school board and Schofield, alleging that his civil rights were violated through treatment he received before the site was posted and for the expulsion itself.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Rick Van Wagoner is representing Ian in the criminal libel case, but Ian serves as his own counsel in the civil matter.

Responding to the libel complaint against him, Ian called his site parody and claimed it was speech that should be protected. Ian said he will not make any public statements until all litigation is finished.

As for any chilling effect, David Lake said the Utah educational environment might already be chilled-and this case will not help.

"This is such a conservative state here, with a heavy emphasis on the moral environment," he said. "I think Walt is trying to use the courts to dictate morality. I don't think that's going to happen."

Schofield did not return phone calls to his office from the Report.

Sandra Baron, executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York, said speculation on the nationwide consequence of cases like Ian's "would be pure conjecture," but his case serves as a dangerous reminder that the chances of a chill by litigation does exist.

"Any litigation based on speech is likely to chill both the speaker in future circumstances and those around [the speaker] who are familiar with the circumstances," she said. "More specifically, any lawsuit against a student or student organization is likely to cast a long shadow in the relevant community."

In California, Daniel Curzon-Brown, an English professor at City College of San Francisco, filed a libel suit in October 1999 claiming that comments posted on Ryan Lathouwers' Web site defamed him.

The site,, allows students to post evaluations of their teachers for other students to use when registering for classes. Each review grades an instructor's classroom performance using an A through F scale. Users can post comments anonymously. Several anonymous postings about Curzon-Brown, who is openly gay, strayed from the site's purpose and ridiculed his sexual orientation. Curzon-Brown settled the suit in October 2000 after "heavy hints [from the judge] that he would not grant discovery, [and was] not going to let us know who the [anonymous posters] were." (See Professors)

His case should not be viewed as a threat to student expression, he said, but as an opportunity to hold "cyberthugs" responsible for "writing filthy, pornographic, homophobic hate speech."

Lathouwers' attorney, Bernard Burk, called Curzon-Brown's suit misguided. He said this case and others like it are of concern to student journalists. He called the settlement a "major victory for free speech on the Internet-and for student media everywhere."

Larry Gold, director of the higher education division of the American Federation of Teachers, a national educators' advocacy group, said these matters are indeed about teachers.

"Of course, it's a concern of ours," he said. "It's a concern of any union that would represent faculty, if they are being substantially harmed."

Since the CCSF case, the federation is examining the issue and is in preliminary exploration of a possible position on libel law as it relates to the Internet. However, Gold said, the group has no official position yet and its efforts in no way circumvent the First Amendment and the speech rights it affords to students.

"We are extremely sensitive to the First Amendment aspect of this," he said. "We're educators. Free speech is not something we take lightly or don't believe in.

At Indiana's Carmel High School, where three teachers sued Brian Conradt over his personal Web site, student newspaper editor Brian Drierhorst said he would indeed still be for free expression, even if it means unpopular speech.

Three Carmel High School teachers recently settled a defamation suit against Conradt, Drierhorst's classmate whose Web site referred to 11 teachers as devil worshippers. Teachers discovered Conradt's site one day after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

The Indiana State Teachers Association paid the teachers' legal fees, and Conradt paid the teachers $5,000.

"I think the teachers took the case too far and did not understand the First Amendment," Drierhorst said. "Unfortunately, a precedent has been set that has the potential to affect all student journalists."

In Pennsylvania, Nitschmann Middle School officials expelled Justin Swidler for ridiculing the principal and a teacher on his Web site. The teacher, Kathleen Fulmer, filed a civil defamation suit against Swidler for the comments he made about her on the site.

A Northampton jury rejected Fulmer's defamation claim in November, but awarded her $500,000 for invasion of privacy. Swidler's site,, featured a picture of Fulmer morphing into Adolf Hitler and a list of reasons she should be fired.

Swidler was expelled in May 1998 when school officials discovered the site. Like Ian Lake, Swidler filed a suit against the school district claiming the punishment violated his First Amendment rights. A Pennsylvania trial court ruled for the school district, and a state appellate court upheld that ruling in June 2000. Swidler's attorneys have petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear an appeal, but the court has yet to issue a response. Swidler, 16, is currently attending college in Florida.

Richard Maurer, Swidler's attorney, said libel cases could affect the environment surrounding expression.

"I guess one never knows [if these cases chill student speech], but if [Swidler's case] is any indication, this could change things," he said.

At the time the Report went to press, Maurer was negotiating a settlement with Fulmer.

In Florida, a similar incident of teacher criticism did not result in suspensions, but still ended up in court.

Nine Leon High School seniors tested the bounds of free speech in 1998 with the annual edition of Low Life, a parody of the school's official paper, High Life. The paper called teacher Rosalind Nims "the most fucked up teacher" at the school and threatened to rape and kill her family members. The newspaper also referred to Nims, who is black, as a "nigger."

The editors apologized to Nims, said lawyer Frank Myers, but she wanted vindication in court. Her case was dismissed by a trial court but reinstated by the state court of appeals. Myers, who is representing former student editor Joey Harrison, said the case is very much about First Amendment privileges. The court of appeals did not agree, however, and denied Myers' attempt to appeal its decision to the Florida Supreme Court.

The composite effects of these cases on student journalists and student expression are indeed a matter of conjecture. This much is known, though: Libel law is not going away, so likely, neither are these cases.

"The very existence of libel law is based on the notion there are some limits to free speech," the AFT's Gold said. "In fact, it involves balancing rights right at the beginning."

In the meantime, student journalists have their work cut out for them.

"Students are going to have to get awfully assertive to overcome institutional barriers like teachers and principals who are making assumptions that kids shouldn't be talking about certain things," said Tom Eveslage, a Temple University journalism professor and a member of the Pennsylvania High School Press Association board of directors.

And for teachers thinking of countering less-than-flattering speech of students like Ian Lake with a summons, the LDRC's Baron has a better idea.

"[We] should use [this type of speech], provocative though it may be, as the beginning of a lesson plan on tolerance and free speech, on understanding how the community may ostracize and disenfranchise some," she said, "and, indeed, on how the student community can and should avoid creating citizens who feel pushed outside the systems."

reports, Winter 2000-01