Federal court rules school district violated rights of high school student suspended for e-mail

PENNSYLVANIA — A federal judge ruled Friday that ahigh school student’s First Amendment rights were violated whenschool administrators suspended him for an e-mail he wrote fromhome that mocked the school’s athletic director.

U.S. District Judge Donald Ziegler ruled that the FranklinRegional School District did not have the right to disciplineZachariah Paul because the e-mail did not contain any threatsand was distributed off school grounds.

"Although the intended audience was undoubetdly connectedto Franklin Regional High School, the absence of threats or actualdisruption leads us to conclude that Paul’s suspension was improper,"Ziegler said in his opinion.

Paul’s attorney, Vic Walczak, executive director of the GreaterPittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, saidhe is pleased with the decision.

"It affirms that the school violated [Paul’s] proceduraldue process rights, his First Amendment rights and that the underlyingdisciplinary policy was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad,"Walczak said.

Paul, a former Franklin Regional High School student, was suspendedin 1999 after an e-mail he sent to 23 of his friends containinga "Top Ten" list circulated throughout the school. Thee-mail ridiculed then-athletic director Bill Bozzutto, naming10reasons why he is "always so pissed off," includingcomments about his weight and sex life.

The teen received a 10-day out-of-school-suspension, five Saturdaymorning detentions and a 20-hour in-school suspension.

Paul, a junior at the time of the incident, sued the schoolto get the suspension lifted, arguing that his free-speech rightswere violated. Shortly after, Paul reached an agreement with theschool district and was reinstated in school after serving eightdays of his suspension. Under the agreement, Paul said he wouldabstain from distributing material criticizing school officialsto fellow students in the future.

Prior to his suspension, Paul had been warned by administratorsnot to distribute similar material after he wrote an e-mail referringto the school librarian as a "Book Nazi" and suggestingthat students ask her for books on how to make bombs.

Judge Ziegler denied the school district’s request last Aprilfor the names of the students who were the recipients of the TopTen list e-mail.

Walczak, who said he believes Paul’s case will be helpful toother students involved in similar incidents, said he never thoughtthe judge would rule against Paul.

"So long as the speech does not involve true threats,which this speech didn’t, the First Amendment should protect theout-of-school speech," Walczak said. "School officialsneed to recognize that the Constitution prevents them from playingparent when the student is speaking via computer from home."

Paul and his mother will be able to ask for damages and courtcosts from the school district at a hearing scheduled for April20.

Previous Stories:

Administratorssuspend student for e-mail, Fall 1999 Report