Florida principal reinstates student suspended for Web site

A high school senior returned to school Feb. 20 after being suspended for a Web site he created that criticized the school.

Aaron Fiehn served four days of his original 10-day suspension before being allowed to return to Belleview High School in Ocala. The 17-year-old student was suspended after he posted a Web site that Belleview Principal Jim Wohrley considered “disruptive to the school environment.” The Web site, which was posted on Feb. 6 and has since been removed, contained foul language and derogatory comments about Belleview.

Fiehn’s reinstatement occurred after several discussions between Wohrley and attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who were contacted by Fiehn.

“The school essentially admitted that it had wrongly suspended him,” said Randall C. Marshall, legal director for the ACLU of Florida. “To suspend him for an off-campus Web site would in fact violate the First Amendment so they put him back in school with no penalties.”

According to Wohrley, Fiehn was suspended because his site disrupted school activities and because of the references he made to other Belleview students on the site. Under the Marion County School District Code of Conduct, using foul, obscene or abusive language is grounds for suspension.

However, because the Web site was created outside of school on a personal computer, Marshall said the school could not legally punish Fiehn for its content.

“Various courts have already held that you can’t suspend or punish a student for speech off campus,” Marshall said. “The school may have some ability to control what students write as part of a school-sponsored newspaper or a school-sponsored Web site, but certainly, students don’t lose their constitutional rights simply because they’re students.”

Marshall added that the Web site did not have any connection to the school except for the criticism of it.

Fiehn said he created the site after another Belleview High School student completed a 10-day suspension for a similar Web page.