Students fight Internet censorship, restrictions

A Pennsylvania student expelled in December for an online conversationwith a friend has filed a lawsuit against his private high school.

In the America Online Instant Messenger conversation, which took placefrom the students’ homes, the student said “stupid people should be banishedor killed.” At the end of the conversation he said he did not really thinkstupid people should be killed, instead saying they were annoying.

How school authorities at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood receiveda transcript of the exchange is uncertain. The headmaster wrote in a letterto parents that a school chaperone turned over a transcript of the conversationafter becoming alarmed by its contents. But the student’s mother arguedthat another student shared the transcript with others because he foundit funny.

The student’s attorney, Philip M. Stinson, stressed that issues of privacyand wire-intercept laws are fundamental to the case.

“This was real-time conversation … that has no expectation of beingrecorded, duplicated or sent on to others,” Stinson told The PhiladelphiaInquirer.

Rather than agree to restrictions presented by their school board, thestaff members of a Kansas high school newspaper decided in Januarythat they will no longer post an online version of the paper.

The school board had presented the staff of the Maize High School Express witha set of options for online publishing after staff members fought a boardpolicy preventing them from including the last names or identifiable photographsof students in the online version of their newspaper without a signed consentform from the students’ parents.

The options included using an in-house Web network that could only beaccessed from school district computers; including only the last namesand identifiable photographs of students who had parental permission; requiringa password to view the online edition; or not posting the paper onlineat all. The Express staff chose the final option and no longer publishan online version of the newspaper.

Kris Hinson, current managing editor of the Express, said choosingone of the other options would have prevented the staff from reaching awider audience because only students and staff in the school district wouldhave had access to it. He also said staff members feared the consequencesof being held responsible if they accidentally included the name or photoof a student in the online edition who had not returned a signed consentform.

A Washington student expelled from school in February 1999 fora satirical Web page he created is suing the school district.

Karl Beidler, a junior at Timberline High School in Lacey at the time,created the page from home. It included a picture of his vice principalin various fictional settings as well as numerous disclaimers stating thatthe pictures were all parodies created from Beidler’s imagination.

School officials saw the site and expelled Beidler for the remainderof the school year for “exceptional misconduct,” according to an AmericanCivil Liberties Union press release.

The North Thurston School District eventually allowed Beidler to enrollin another district school to complete the year. The district also agreedto erase the expulsion from Beidler’s permanent record.

The lawsuit is still pending. Beidler and his attorneys are seekingdamages for the expulsion. They also want a decision in Beidler’s favorto make clear that students cannot be punished for speech made outsideof school.