Off-campus Web sites endure censorship
Some school administrators claim students' personal Web sites are subject to approval
With the advent of the World Wide Web, the average Joe can become publisher, critic-at-large or guest columnist, much to the chagrin of school officials who sometimes become the target of students' Internet publications.
When such sites are created and viewed off-campus or are used for fair comment and criticism, public school officials typically have no real legal ability to censor content or punish students.
However, when students post blogs and comments about principals and teachers, some school officials say they have the right to control the content of even a personal site.
In Arkansas, four students were suspended in August after posting comic strips and comments about Greenwood High School on their personal Web sites. One was posted on www.angelfire.com, and the other was posted on Xanga, an independent journal site.
Seniors Ryan Kuhl and Justin Neal went on to file suit against the Greenwood School District and Principal Jerry Efurd.
In one installment, Neal’s comic strip "Greentree" depicted a talking intercom and gun-wielding administrator speaking to circle-shaped students. The administrator shoots two students for failing to raise their hands in support of the new school year.
The figures were stereotypical school officials and were not meant to be representations of either Efurd or Vice Principal Jim Garvey, Neal said.
Kuhl’s online journal "Fuck Greenwood" was linked to Neal’s Web site and posted complaints about the new school year and the school’s "dreadfully boring" orientation.
Both sites were created off-campus on the students’ personal computers.
Garvey testified that the sites created a "buzz" on campus that disrupted the harmony of the school.
Greenwood School District Superintendent Kay Johnson said the content of the sites caused "dissention among our student body." In such instances, schools must retain the right to discipline in a manner that produces an environment conducive to learning, she said.
"We have board policies that allow us to act on things that disrupt school whether it happened on school grounds or elsewhere," Johnson said.
Neither Kuhl nor Neal accepts that explanation for their suspensions.
"I was pretty surprised that they would even kick us out of school for something we did in our home," Kuhl said. He took his site down at the end of August.
Neal’s site remains active but is posted with numerous disclaimers that any content is purely satire.
"I believe entirely that [Garvey and Efurd] were wrong in every sense of the word," he said. "They had absolutely no right to even talk to me, I believe, about a Web site I created outside of school that didn’t make a physical threat to anyone and that is really clearly satire."
A magistrate upheld the suspensions, and the two are awaiting a ruling on their civil suit.
The students’ attorney, Chip Sexton, said the school’s position -- that the sites created a disruption of the school day -- is unfounded.
"The only disruption of school that was caused was when school administrators started calling in students to talk about the Web sites," he said.
A similar situation in New Jersey has prompted another lawsuit after a middle school student was suspended for a week, removed from the baseball team for a month and prohibited from going on a class trip to Philadelphia when his personal Web site critiquing the school caught the eye of administrators.
The site, which contained no threats, described Maple Place Middle School as "downright boring" and encouraged students to post their own complaints.
Student Ryan Dwyer’s claim seeks monetary damages and a ruling that the school violated his First Amendment rights.
Both parties have filed motions for summary judgement, and oral arguments are scheduled for Dec. 20.
Dwyer’s attorney, Grayson Barber, a volunteer lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the school’s perceived right to punish a student for off-campus activity is unfounded. For a judge to determine otherwise would set a scary precedent, she said.
"I think that school administrators have been using [the 1999] Columbine [High School shooting] as a rationale for disciplining students unnecessarily," she said.
Because school administrators never sought criminal punishment against Dwyer, they must not have felt his site posed a legitimate concern, Barber said.
"If there was an actual threat, school administrators would have acted very differently," she said.
Arkansas, Greenwood School District, Maple Place Middle School, New Jersey, reports, Winter 2004-05