Student suspended for Web site wins free-speech lawsuit against district

WASHINGTON — A superior court judge ruled in July that the NorthThurston County School District violated the constitutional rights of astudent who was suspended for ridiculing a school administrator on hispersonal Web site.

Judge Thomas McPhee found that because former Timberline High Schoolstudent Karl Beidler’s Web site was not an on-campus activity and did notcreate a substantial disruption of the school day, school officials werenot justified in punishing him for it. Beidler v. North Thurston Sch.Dist., No. 99-2-00236-6, (Thurston Cty. Super. Ct. July 18, 2000).

“Even with the vastly increased opportunity to speak and be heard createdby the Internet, the exceptions to First Amendment protection for studentspeech remain narrowly drawn even for immature and foolishly defiant studentssuch as Mr. Beidler,” McPhee said in his decision. “Schools can and willadjust to the new challenges created by such students and the Internet,but not at the expense of the First Amendment.”

Timberline High School officials expelled Beidler in January 1999 afterdiscovering his Web site, which included images of the school’s assistantprincipal having sex with cartoon character Homer Simpson. After missinga month of classes, Beidler was allowed to enroll in an alternative school.He returned to Timberline last fall and has since graduated.

In his ruling, McPhee cited the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Tinkerv. Des Moines Independent School District and Thomas v. Board ofEducation, a case decided in 1979 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for theSecond Circuit. In Tinker, the Court ruled that public school studentshad the right to wear black armbands to school as a symbol of protest againstthe Vietnam War. The Second Circuit ruled in Thomas that studentscould not be suspended for distributing an underground newspaper off schoolproperty.

“Since [the Second Circuit’s] opinion in 1979, the landscape upon whichthe line where the balance tips from protected speech for students to permissiblepunitive power for school administrators has changed dramatically,” McPheesaid. “The Internet marks that landscape change as dramatically as theFront Range marks the end of the Great Plains. But while the landscapehas changed, the line has not. Today the First Amendment protects students’speech to the same extent as in 1979 or 1969.”

Robert Hedrick, an ACLU of Washington cooperating attorney who representedBeidler, called the ruling “a victory for students across the country.”

“This case says students have First Amendment rights when posting Webpages on the Internet,” Hedrick said.

Beidler said he was pleased with the judge’s decision, adding that schoolofficials blew the situation out of proportion.

“[The site] was just a joke,” Beidler said. “It was never intended tobe viewed by the entire world.”