Board reverses decision to fine, punish student Web hosts for chat room threat

WASHINGTON — Three high school students who were fined and suspendedin November after a stranger posted an anonymous death threat on a Website they created successfully appealed to the school board to have thedecision reversed.

The students from Eastlake High School in Sammamish created the Website from their homes as a forum for their classmates. It included a messageboard and a chat room, both of which were used by students to talk andshare gossip.

In late October of last year, an unknown user signed on to the siteand threatened to kill Eastlake High School students. The three Web pagecreators contacted the high school and shut down the site in an effortto help authorities discover who had posted the threat. Administratorsdecided to close the school the following day.

School officials then punished the students for creating the site, suspendingthem for five days and fining them $500 each — 10 percent of the costof closing school for a day. Officials later reduced the fine to 25 hoursof community service.

The students and their families appealed the punishment to the schoolboard with the help of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Unionof Washington. In February, the board decided not to require the studentsto pay a fine or perform community service and erased the suspension, whichthe students had already served, from their records.

Doug Honig, a spokesman for the ACLU of Washington, said he was pleasedwith the board’s decision.

“We’re happy,” he said. “Although they should never have been suspendedin the first place.”

In a press release following the decision, Aaron Caplan, an attorneywith the ACLU of Washington, accused the school of using the students asscapegoats. He also expressed concern that the school’s administrationwas holding the students accountable for the actions of others.

“The school does not have the authority to impose discipline on studentsfor speech outside of school and certainly not for providing a forum forfree speech by others,” he said.

Julya Hampton, legal program director for the ACLU of Washington, likenedthe role the students played to the role of a telephone company.

“We believe that it is unfair for the school district to disciplinestudents because of statements posted by others on their Web site,” shesaid. “It is like going after the phone company for a threat made overthe telephone.”

It was later discovered that the Web site threat was posted by a studentfrom Arizona State University. He called police to turn himself in oncehe learned that Eastlake High School had been closed and said he postedthe message as a joke. In March he was sentenced to two years of probationand 80 hours of community service.