Ohio middle school student suspended for private skateboarding Web page sues school

A 14-year-old Ohio middle school student filed suit against the North Canton City School District in July after school officials suspended him for creating a personal Web page about skateboarding.

Eighth-grader Johnathan Coy was suspended from North Canton Middle School for two weeks in April after a teacher discovered Coy’s site, which was created at home and hosted on an off-campus service provider, according to the complaint. The school initially threatened to expel him for 80 days, but later decided to let him attend class on the condition that he not get into any more trouble.

Coy and his parents, with the help of the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, are seeking an injunction to end the suspension and clear Coy’s disciplinary record. ACLU attorney Jillian Davis said the school’s action is clearly unconstitutional because it punished Coy for constitutionally protected speech that had no connection to the school.

“If you’ve got a Web site and it’s totally off campus then that is private speech by the student,” Davis said. “The school doesn’t have any business coming in and censoring that.”

According to the complaint filed July 26, Coy was suspended for “obscenity,” “disobedience” and “inappropriate action or behavior,” defined as “any action or behavior judged by school officials to be inappropriate.” Davis admitted that the site did have a few four-letter words, but was “basically just eighth-grade stuff.”

North Canton Superintendent Thomas Shoup said he could not comment on disciplinary actions taken against Coy, but said he is confident that the school system was right to take the steps it did.

SPLC VIEW: As this matter and the Pennsylvania case that follows illustrate, schools continue to punish students for their off-campus online expression despite a growing body of law that protects students’ First Amendment rights when they are outside of school. To help students and administrators understand some of the legal boundaries, this summer the SPLC published its online “CyberGuide: A Legal Manual for Online Publishers of Independent Student Web Sites,” available at: http://www.splc.org/resources/cyberguide.html