Schools watch Web expression

As high school students grow more Internet savvy, the Web is playing a bigger role as an avenue for student free expression.

Administrators are striving to be more watchful for criticism or threats posted online by their students, disciplining those who may cross the line and sometimes ending up in court (See COURTS, page 17).

A number of incidents around the country indicate trends in student Web activities and how administrators are reacting.

‘Although courts have given school officials broad authority to regulate and punish students’ expression while they are in school, teachers and administrators need to recognize that the First Amendment limits their authority to play parent when the students are home,’ said Kim Watterson, an attorney working for the American Civil Liberties Union of greater Pittsburgh.

Watterson and her client, Jack Flaherty, recently reached a partial settlement in a suit brought against Keystone Oaks School District in Pennsylvania. Flaherty was kicked off the Keystone Oaks High School volleyball team in March 2001 for posting negative comments online about a teacher.

According to the ACLU, Flaherty posted four messages on an Internet bulletin board, one of which said that an opposing player’s mother, who teaches at Flaherty’s school, was ‘a bad art teacher.’ The site, devoted to high school volleyball in western Pennsylvania, was not sponsored by or affiliated with the school, Watterson said.

After the school learned of the messages, Flaherty was removed from the team, prohibited from attending any after-school events and forbidden to use school computers. A federal district court judge issued an injunction that repealed Flaherty’s punishment and allowed him to rejoin the team. The school cancelled the remainder of the volleyball season after a number of players and team coaches quit.

Flaherty’s suit, filed by the ACLU, argues the school should not have punished him because he posted the message from home, not from a school computer.

A partial settlement was reached in Flaherty’s favor in November with the school agreeing to pay him $60,000 in attorney fees and damages. The case will continue, however, in order to determine whether district student conduct rules related to Internet use and discipline violate the First Amendment.

Flaherty, now a sophomore at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said he hopes that ‘in the future Keystone Oaks will not punish students who exercise their constitutional rights to criticize the school.’

Joshua Mahaffey, a student at Waterford Kettering High School in Michigan was slapped with a 143-day suspension and was recommended to a psychiatric hospital for an online posting. However, a federal district judge ruled in November that the school violated Mahaffey’s rights to free speech and due process with the punishment.

According to his attorney, Richard Landau, Mahaffey posted a ‘people I wish would die list’ on a friend’s Web site, which administrators learned about four or five months later in September 2001. The posting was done from home and the site was not school-sponsored or affiliated. The list included Waterford Kettering students but no faculty or staff, Landau said.

Mahaffey was suspended indefinitely by the school for assault, behavior dangerous to self and others, harassment and Internet violations. He also was taken to the Waterford Police Department for questioning, and his parents voluntarily turned over the family’s computer to investigators.

At the encouragement of the police and school administrators, Mahaffey’s parents had him admitted to a local psychiatric hospital. After three days, a hospital report stated, ‘He was not a danger to himself or others,’ and recommended he ‘return to school as soon as possible.’

In granting summary judgment for Mahaffey on Nov. 26, Judge Patrick Duggan said the school did not prove that the Web site was accessed at school or that the Web site caused any disruption at school.

Duggan also said that the ‘people I wish would die list’ could not reasonably be considered a threat.

‘[Mahaffey]’s listing of names under the heading ‘people I wish would die’ did not constitute a threat to the people listed therein anymore than [his] listing of names under the heading ‘people that are cool’ make those listed therein ‘cool,” said Duggan.

Mahaffey was never charged with a crime. A hearing has been scheduled to decide whether Mahaffey will receive $75,000 in damages.

Student editors of the underground news Web site, The Babbitt, have been at odds with school administrators at Carbon County Vocational-Technical School in Pennsylvania ever since they published a story about a teacher who allegedly falsified a disciplinary referral form.

When a local newspaper and television station both picked up The Babbitt’s article, the heightened publicity led Principal Paul Caputo to have the site blocked from all Carbon County school computers in January 2002. Caputo cited a significant disruption of the school, although no specifics were ever given about the disruption.

Caputo also threatened The Babbitt’s staff with expulsion from school, though no such action was ever taken. The students continued to update the Web site while the block was in place, and the site remained accessible off school grounds.

In December, editors James Curry and Conrad Flynn signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding,’ a contract presented by Carbon County administrators. Administrators say when the memorandum is signed by the two editors and two district officials, the site will be unblocked.

The memorandum states that the ban will be lifted as long as the site adheres to the school’s network policy.

Mahaffey v. Aldrich, Case No. 02-CV-70829-DT (E. Mich. Nov. 26, 2002)