District pays $62,000 in damages after losing suit filed by student suspended for Web site

WASHINGTON — School administrators received a lesson in First Amendmentrights in February after a judge approved a settlement granting more than$60,000 to a student who was suspended for posting a Web site that pokedfun at his assistant principal.

Karl Beidler was awarded $10,000 in damages and $52,000 in attorney’sfees following negotiations between the American Civil Liberties Unionof Washington, which represented Beidler, and the North Thurston CountySchool District.

The settlement came after a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruledin July that Beidler’s First Amendment rights were violated when he wassuspended.

“Today the First Amendment protects students’ speech to the same extentas in 1979 or 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Tinker v. DesMoines,” Judge Thomas McPhee said in his decision.

The Supreme Court ruled in Tinker that “students do not shedtheir constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhousegate.”

ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig said he is pleased with thedecision.

“It makes clear that school officials can’t discipline students forfree-speech activities outside of school,” he said. “It also makes clearthat the First Amendment applies to cyberspace just as much as it appliesto written speech.”

Honig said he believes the case will set a precedent as it one of thefirst cases involving the free-speech rights of students on the Internet.

Beidler was originally suspended from Timberline High School in January1999 on an “emergency basis.” He was later suspended for a month for “exceptionalmisconduct” after he ridiculed the assistant principal on his Web siteby posting altered photos of him in a Viagra commercial and on the bodyof cartoon character Homer Simpson having sex.