Ian Lake called his principal “the town drunk.” Ryan Lathouwers designeda Web site where users made anonymous submissions ridiculing a professor’ssexual orientation.
Brian Condradt said 11 of his teachers worshipped Satan, while JustinSwidler likened his math teacher to Adolf Hitler.
And Joey Harrison and eight of his friends published a parody paperthreatening to rape “the most fucked up teacher” on campus.
The common thread: They all ended up in court, facing charges of libeland invasion of privacy by those from whom they are supposed to learn.One case was dismissed. One was settled. Three are still pending.
Educators drew a line in the sand, said their students’ speech crossedit and asked the courts to render judgment. The incidents remind studentsthat they are not exempt from the limitations of libel law. And they raisethe question of whether the rights of students might be affected by suchcases and whether the weight or fear of litigation might chill their speech.
Considering these questions sparks a variety of reactions from educators,lawyers, journalists and First Amendment fighters.
One angle dismisses these teacher-student disputes as isolated and personal,having little role in the First Amendment debate. Another says baselessteacher-filed libel suits do indeed leave a chilling effect on studentexpression and thus are a potential, if not outright, threat to school-sponsoredand non-school-sponsored speech. Still another view says there are no surebets other than the necessity that all parties involved work to balancestudents’ rights with the rights of their educators.
David Lake, whose son Ian was expelled from Milford High School in Utahin May 2000, said the legal battle now waged between Ian and his formerprincipal, Walter Schofield, is nothing more than a mud-slinging contestborn out of “hurt feelings.”
“This thing is getting to the point where I think it’s just two littlekids that hurt each other’s feelings and can’t get over it,” he said. “Ithink they should have just walked away.”
Ian posted a Web site from his home computer in May that called Schofieldthe “town drunk” and disparaged other students and faculty at Milford HighSchool.
Local prosecutors charged Ian with criminal libel under Utah code, andhe now faces a civil libel suit brought by Schofield. Additionally, Ianhas filed a claim of his own against the school board and Schofield, allegingthat his civil rights were violated through treatment he received beforethe site was posted and for the expulsion itself.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Rick Van Wagoner is representingIan in the criminal libel case, but Ian serves as his own counsel in thecivil matter.
Responding to the libel complaint against him, Ian called his site parodyand claimed it was speech that should be protected. Ian said he will notmake any public statements until all litigation is finished.
As for any chilling effect, David Lake said the Utah educational environmentmight already be chilled-and this case will not help.
“This is such a conservative state here, with a heavy emphasis on themoral environment,” he said. “I think Walt is trying to use the courtsto dictate morality. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Schofield did not return phone calls to his office from the Report.
Sandra Baron, executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Centerin New York, said speculation on the nationwide consequence of cases likeIan’s “would be pure conjecture,” but his case serves as a dangerous reminderthat the chances of a chill by litigation does exist.
“Any litigation based on speech is likely to chill both the speakerin future circumstances and those around [the speaker] who are familiarwith the circumstances,” she said. “More specifically, any lawsuit againsta student or student organization is likely to cast a long shadow in therelevant community.”
In California, Daniel Curzon-Brown, an English professor at CityCollege of San Francisco, filed a libel suit in October 1999 claiming thatcomments posted on Ryan Lathouwers’ Web site defamed him.
The site, TeacherReview.com,allows students to post evaluations of their teachers for other studentsto use when registering for classes. Each review grades an instructor’sclassroom performance using an A through F scale. Users can post commentsanonymously. Several anonymous postings about Curzon-Brown, who is openlygay, strayed from the site’s purpose and ridiculed his sexual orientation.Curzon-Brown settled the suit in October 2000 after “heavy hints [fromthe judge] that he would not grant discovery, [and was] not going to letus know who the [anonymous posters] were.” (See Professors)
His case should not be viewed as a threat to student expression, hesaid, but as an opportunity to hold “cyberthugs” responsible for “writingfilthy, pornographic, homophobic hate speech.”
Lathouwers’ attorney, Bernard Burk, called Curzon-Brown’s suit misguided.He said this case and others like it are of concern to student journalists.He called the settlement a “major victory for free speech on the Internet-andfor student media everywhere.”
Larry Gold, director of the higher education division of the AmericanFederation of Teachers, a national educators’ advocacy group, said thesematters are indeed about teachers.
“Of course, it’s a concern of ours,” he said. “It’s a concern of anyunion that would represent faculty, if they are being substantially harmed.”
Since the CCSF case, the federation is examining the issue and is inpreliminary exploration of a possible position on libel law as it relatesto the Internet.However, Gold said, the group has no official position yet and itsefforts in no way circumvent the First Amendment and the speech rightsit affords to students.
“We are extremely sensitive to the First Amendment aspect of this,”he said. “We’re educators. Free speech is not something we take lightlyor don’t believe in.
At Indiana‘s Carmel High School, where three teachers sued BrianConradt over his personal Web site, student newspaper editor Brian Drierhorstsaid he would indeed still be for free expression, even if it means unpopularspeech.
Three Carmel High School teachers recently settled a defamation suitagainst Conradt, Drierhorst’s classmate whose Web site referred to 11 teachersas devil worshippers. Teachers discovered Conradt’s site one day afterthe 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
The Indiana State Teachers Association paid the teachers’ legal fees,and Conradt paid the teachers $5,000.
“I think the teachers took the case too far and did not understand theFirst Amendment,” Drierhorst said. “Unfortunately, a precedent has beenset that has the potential to affect all student journalists.”
In Pennsylvania, Nitschmann Middle School officials expelledJustin Swidler for ridiculing the principal and a teacher on his Web site.The teacher, Kathleen Fulmer, filed a civil defamation suit against Swidlerfor the comments he made about her on the site.
A Northampton jury rejected Fulmer’s defamation claim in November, butawarded her $500,000 for invasion of privacy. Swidler’s site, TeacherSux.com,featured a picture of Fulmer morphing into Adolf Hitler and a list of reasonsshe should be fired.
Swidler was expelled in May 1998 when school officials discovered thesite. Like Ian Lake, Swidler filed a suit against the school district claimingthe punishment violated his First Amendment rights. A Pennsylvania trialcourt ruled for the school district, and a state appellate court upheldthat ruling in June 2000. Swidler’s attorneys have petitioned the PennsylvaniaSupreme Court to hear an appeal, but the court has yet to issue a response.Swidler, 16, is currently attending college in Florida.
Richard Maurer, Swidler’s attorney, said libel cases could affect theenvironment surrounding expression.
“I guess one never knows [if these cases chill student speech], butif [Swidler’s case] is any indication, this could change things,” he said.
At the time the Report went to press, Maurer was negotiatinga settlement with Fulmer.
In Florida, a similar incident of teacher criticism did not resultin suspensions, but still ended up in court.
Nine Leon High School seniors tested the bounds of free speech in 1998with the annual edition of Low Life, a parody of the school’s officialpaper, High Life. The paper called teacher Rosalind Nims “the mostfucked up teacher” at the school and threatened to rape and kill her familymembers. The newspaper also referred to Nims, who is black, as a “nigger.”
The editors apologized to Nims, said lawyer Frank Myers, but she wantedvindication in court. Her case was dismissed by a trial court but reinstatedby the state court of appeals. Myers, who is representing former studenteditor Joey Harrison, said the case is very much about First Amendmentprivileges. The court of appeals did not agree, however, and denied Myers’attempt to appeal its decision to the Florida Supreme Court.
The composite effects of these cases on student journalists and studentexpression are indeed a matter of conjecture. This much is known, though:Libel law is not going away, so likely, neither are these cases.
“The very existence of libel law is based on the notion there are somelimits to free speech,” the AFT’s Gold said. “In fact, it involves balancingrights right at the beginning.”
In the meantime, student journalists have their work cut out for them.
“Students are going to have to get awfully assertive to overcome institutionalbarriers like teachers and principals who are making assumptions that kidsshouldn’t be talking about certain things,” said Tom Eveslage, a TempleUniversity journalism professor and a member of the Pennsylvania High SchoolPress Association board of directors.
And for teachers thinking of countering less-than-flattering speechof students like Ian Lake with a summons, the LDRC’s Baron has a betteridea.
“[We] should use [this type of speech], provocative though it may be,as the beginning of a lesson plan on tolerance and free speech, on understandinghow the community may ostracize and disenfranchise some,” she said, “and,indeed, on how the student community can and should avoid creating citizenswho feel pushed outside the systems.”