Student sues N.J. school after officials punished him for critical Web site

NEW JERSEY — A former student at a middleschool in Oceanport is suing school officials for violating his rights to freespeech and due process after they punished him for creating a Web site criticalof the school administration.The lawsuit, filed by Ryan Dwyer and hisparents on Dec. 18, alleges that officials in the Oceanport School Districtsuspended the Maple Place School eighth-grader for one week, removed him fromthe school baseball team for one month and barred him from the end-of-year classtrip because of his “Anti-Maple Place” Web site. Dwyer created the siteto provide a forum for criticism of school officials. It was meant to showstudents “why their school isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.” The sitedescribed the school as “downright boring” and urged visitors to sign a guestbook to express their “hatred” for the school. Visitors to the site wereinstructed not to use profanity because it “isn’t protected by the FirstAmendment” and that they should not threaten “any teacher or person EVER.”Some comments in the guest book were “arguably crude, sophomoric andoffensive,” but Dwyer never made any threats or used profanity, the lawsuitclaims. The site included the phrase, “This page protected by the U.S.Constitution.” School officials disagreed. They say the Web siteviolated the school’s disciplinary code.”I don’t believe his rights wereviolated,” Anthony P. Sciarrillo, the school district’s attorney, told theAssociated Press. Sciarrillo and Superintendent James DiGiovanna, a defendant inthe case, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Atthe request of school officials, Dwyer took down the Web site less than a weekafter it went online. The lawsuit contends that Dwyer created the sitefrom his home computer and never used school computers or facilities to edit oraccess the site.Dwyer’s attorney, Grayson Barber, said the schooldistrict has never said what rule or law Dwyer violated. She said the courtshould affirm the First Amendment protections of students to express opinionsand criticize officials.”School officials must learn that, like adults,students have the right to express their views and to provide a forum for otherstudents to do the same, even if those views are critical of school officials,”said Barber, who volunteered to take the case through the American CivilLiberties Union of New Jersey. Edward Barocas, legal director for theACLU of New Jersey, said the U.S. Constitution and laws protect webmasters, suchas Dwyer, from being held liable for statements made on the Web over which theyhave no editorial control.”Our schools should encourage debate andpolitical engagement rather than punishing students who provide a forum for freeexpression,” Barocas said.The ACLU has prevailed in several similarlawsuits filed by students who were punished for materials they posted onlinefrom home and on their own time. Dwyer’s lawsuit seeks to expungeDwyer’s disciplinary record of any mention of the punishment, unspecifiedmonetary compensation and a court’s ruling that Oceanport School Districtviolated Dwyer’s constitutional rights. It was filed in U.S. District Court inTrenton, N.J.Dwyer, now 15, is a freshman at another school.