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Mo. students sue after blog posts land them six-month suspensions

March 16, 2012

MISSOURI — Two parents are suing the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District for violating their sons’ First Amendment rights after administrators suspended them for six months over an online blog about the school.

High school juniors and twin brothers Steven and Sean Wilson were suspended in December for 180 days because of their involvement with the blog, North Press, according to a complaint filed March 6 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

The blog included a post with racial epithets and sexually explicit posts about a named female student, according to court documents.

The Wilsons – described as A students and aspiring leaders in the school band – are attending an alternative school during their suspension. The students’ attorney is asking a judge to reinstate them to Lee’s Summit North High School.

Court documents indicate Steven Wilson used a school computer Dec. 13 to upload the files for a basic Wordpress blog, but that the brothers did not write any posts or customize the site until they got home from school.

The students appealed their suspension to the school board in February. According to a transcript of that hearing, a third student – not named in the lawsuit – also had administrative privileges to publish posts on the blog. The Wilsons claim the third student posted the racial epithet before school Dec. 16 without their knowledge. After students began talking about that post at school, the third student left school later that morning and deleted all of the posts on North Press, according to the hearing transcript.

The Wilsons do admit to writing other posts on the site about a named female student. One of them referred to her as “the biggest bitch in the whole school.”

The website used a Dutch domain name, which the Wilsons claim was to keep people from finding the site through search engines. According to court documents, the Wilsons intended for the site to be satirical and only seen by a small group of five or six friends.

School officials claim the site caused a disruption. School district attorney Shellie Guin said the district is hopeful the court will find that it was within its full legal rights to take disciplinary action.

The Wilsons’ attorney, Aaron Schwartz, declined to comment.

The case joins a growing number of lawsuits addressing the free speech rights of students online. The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the issue, and lower courts are divided. A recent ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld school discipline of another Missouri student who sent instant messages from his home computer that the court found threatening and disruptive.

The Lee’s Summit case will be the first to decide whether that ruling applies only to threatening speech or to any off-campus speech that could disrupt school. The Wilsons argue there was no substantial disruption of school anyway.

A federal judge in Kansas City has fast-tracked the case. A hearing is set for Wednesday, after which the court will decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction returning the students to Lee’s Summit North.

By Emily Summars, SPLC staff writer

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© 2012 Student Press Law Center

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