Court upholds expulsion of student for Web site

PENNSYLVANIA — The Bethlehem Area School District did not violatethe First Amendment rights of a middle school student expelled for hispersonal Web site, a state court ruled Friday.

Justin Swidler was an eighth grader at Nitschmann Middle School whenhe created the Web site, titled “Teacher Sux,” from his home computer.The site contained several pages criticizing school principal A. ThomasKartsotis and algebra teacher Kathleen Fulmer, including a list of reasonswhy Fulmer should be fired and a picture of her face morphing into AdolfHitler.

School officials learned of the site in May 1998 but did not expel Swidleruntil the following August. Swidler filed a lawsuit against the district,contending that officials violated his right to free speech. A county trialjudge sided with the school district in March 2000.

In its 2-1 decision upholding the trial court’s ruling, the PennsylvaniaCommonwealth Court said that even though Swidler created the site fromhome, it disrupted the educational process at school by causing emotionaldamage to Fulmer and negatively affecting other students’ perceptions ofFulmer and Kartsotis.

The court also said school officials could consider the comments Swidlermade on his Web site a legitimate threat despite the fact that law enforcementagencies refused to file charges against him.

“Regrettably, in this day and age where school violence is becomingmore commonplace, school officials are justified in taking very seriouslythreats against faculty and other students,” Judge Jess S. Jiuliante saidin the decision. “Given the contents of Student’s web-site and the effectit had upon Mr. Kartsotis, Mrs. Fulmer and the school community, we concludethat the trial court properly determined that the School District did notviolate Student’s rights under the First Amendment.”

Other courts have ruled, however, that school districts cannot punishstudents for Web sites they create at home. A federal district court ruledin December 1998 that a Missouri school district violated the First Amendmentrights of a student suspended for creating a Web site critical of his school.That case, Beussink v. Woodland,was one of the first rulings toaddress whether schools can legally punish students for their personalWeb pages.