Judge rules Univ. of Del. violated student's First Amendment rights in Web site case

Student awarded $10, denied attorney fees

DELAWARE -- A U.S. District Court judge awarded nominal damages to a University of Delaware student, acknowledging the college violated the student's First Amendment rights by punishing him for offensive but non-threatening speech on a personal Web page.

Judge Mary Pat Thynge wrote in her Sept. 4 opinion that Student Maciej Murakowski did not constitute a "true threat" when creating and writing what he termed as a humorous Web site, which was hosted on the school's servers.

Murakowski claimed damages "for the delay in his graduation and entering the workforce as a chemical engineer, as well as, attorney's fees and costs for violation of his constitutional rights" because of his suspension. The judge denied his claim for actual damages but was awarded $10 in nominal damages. The judge said the plaintiff had not proven his case to support punitive damages.

"The favorable finding on the First Amendment claim is merely a judicial acknowledgment of his right to free speech," Thynge wrote.

Murakowski said he did not want to sue the school because he said it had been good to him, but he felt he did not have a choice in the matter, saying it was a matter of principle.

"I'm glad that my First Amendment rights exist, but not getting awarded attorney's fees is a slap in the face," he said.

Murakowski said he does not consider himself a journalist and only writes as a hobby.

"Clearly, his 'essays' are sophomoric, immature, crude and highly offensive in an alleged misguided attempt at humor or parody,"

Thynge wrote in her opinion. "They do not, however, evidence a serious expression of intent to inflict harm."

Thynge said the university was concerned by 10 of over 80 articles on Murakowski's Web site, some of which included, "How to Skin a Cat," "Maciej's Official Guide to Sex" and "Talking About Sex" where he described such sexual positions as "The John F. Kennedy" and "The Good Wife...make dinner."

According to the opinion, the University was not able to prove Murakowski's writings caused a "disruption or was likely to do so."

"While certain students, a parent and University officials were offended, other students did not take his 'works' seriously or view them as threatening," Thynge wrote.

The judge noted that a number of Murakowski's postings had been online for months before anyone complained, and that only one student complainant -- who was upset enough to seek counseling -- appeared to be seriously affected by the writings. "Although complete chaos is not required, something more than distraction or discomfiture created by the speech is needed," the judge wrote.

According to court records, on April 20, Murakowski was called into a vice president's office where she expressed concern about the post titled, "Talking About Sex." Murakowski's father, a researcher for the college, also attended the meeting. There, the administrator informed Murakowski he would be charged through the university's judicial system and prohibited from living in his residence hall or attending classes until receiving a psychiatric assessment; a letter from a licensed mental health provider proving he was not a threat, and granting the university permission to speak with the health provider to confirm the conclusions or recommendations.

Murakowski agreed to the terms and was eventually banned from going to the college by the school's judicial board. Several days prior to the meeting, the Virginia Tech massacre took place. Judge Thynge acknowledged in her opinion that the massacre legitimately heightened concerns over violence on campus.

"Understandably the University was seriously concerned and motivated by that concern," she wrote. "However, despite its good intentions, the University has not shown that Murakowski's articles or his website created disruption or significantly and adversely impacted the college community."

Murakowski's attorney, David Finger, said he was pleased with the decision.

"We're very happy that Maciej is right," he said. "His free speech under the First Amendment has been vindicated."

A spokesman for the college faxed a statement saying, "The University of Delaware is pleased with the decision."

The school also pointed to the court's finding that Murakowski's due process rights were not violated by the school's disciplinary procedures, and that his suspension from school was justified on grounds unrelated to the content of his speech -- his defiance of an order not to return to his dorm room.

Murakowski said he was not planning on cashing the $10 check, but jokingly said he would "frame the check and get the UD president and judicial affairs people to sign it.""It's not really worth cashing," he said.

Neil Thomas, Office of Communications and Marketing senior associate director for the University of Delaware, said he was "not sure if we are going to appeal" the decision.

Deleware, news, University of Delaware