District pays $62,000 in damages after losing suit filed by student suspended for Web site

WASHINGTON -- School administrators received a lesson in First Amendment rights in February after a judge approved a settlement granting more than $60,000 to a student who was suspended for posting a Web site that poked fun at his assistant principal.

Karl Beidler was awarded $10,000 in damages and $52,000 in attorney's fees following negotiations between the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which represented Beidler, and the North Thurston County School District.

The settlement came after a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled in July that Beidler's First Amendment rights were violated when he was suspended.

"Today the First Amendment protects students' speech to the same extent as in 1979 or 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Tinker v. Des Moines," Judge Thomas McPhee said in his decision.

The Supreme Court ruled in Tinker that "students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig said he is pleased with the decision.

"It makes clear that school officials can't discipline students for free-speech activities outside of school," he said. "It also makes clear that the First Amendment applies to cyberspace just as much as it applies to written speech."

Honig said he believes the case will set a precedent as it one of the first cases involving the free-speech rights of students on the Internet.

Beidler was originally suspended from Timberline High School in January 1999 on an "emergency basis." He was later suspended for a month for "exceptional misconduct" after he ridiculed the assistant principal on his Web site by posting altered photos of him in a Viagra commercial and on the body of cartoon character Homer Simpson having sex.

reports, Spring 2001