N.J. student sues school district that punished him for off-campus Web site

NEW JERSEY — Computers and the Internet have always interested Ryan Dwyer. 

It is no surprise, then, that the Maple Place School eighth-grader created a Web site from his Oceanport home, but he could not have imagined what it would lead to.  

Dwyer’s “Anti-Maple Place” Web site served as an open forum for students to freely criticize school officials because “their school isn’t what it’s cracked up to be,” with the site proclaiming, “This page protected by the U.S. Constitution.” The guest book warned signers not to use profanity because it “isn’t protected by the First Amendment” and that they should not threaten “any teacher or person EVER.”

Nevertheless, administrators at the public Oceanport School District discovered the site and suspended Dwyer from school for one week, removed him from the school baseball team for one month and barred him from the end-of-the-year class trip. 

Dwyer and his parents filed a lawsuit in December, alleging that administrators infringed on Dwyer’s First Amendment right to free expression and due process because they never explained why Dwyer was punished.

School district officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit concedes that some of the comments in the guest book were “arguably crude, sophomoric and offensive,” but that Dwyer did not make any threats or use profanity, the lawsuit claims. It also says that he created the site off school grounds and did not access the site at school.

The Web site contained one allegedly anti-Semitic posting and one vague threat: “We’ll get [Maple Place School] on the last day of school.” The anonymous author of that post later stated that it was a joke.

Dwyer said he created the site to encourage other students to “not be afraid to say what you feel about your school because some principals use their power too much.”

After the shootings at Columbine High School, school administrators have increasingly punished students for off-campus expression deemed violent or offensive, said Clay Calvert, Penn State University associate professor of communications and law and co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment. 

“What gives the school authority to regulate off-campus [expression that] is not created in school or using school property?” Calvert asked. “What if the principal sees students at the mall and the student says something he doesn’t like? Does the principal suspend the student? We’re giving school administrators a lot of authority over what their students can and can’t say, but when they’re not on campus, they’re not their students.” 

Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said the ambiguity of Internet law makes responding to online, off-campus expression tricky for school administrators. Threats can be subjective, but because of past incidents of school violence, administrators are pressed to make judgment calls, he said. 

Schools take different approaches to perceived threats. 

In Dwyer’s case, the school did not address the concerns raised on the site, but instead shut down the student’s creative outlet, said Grayson Barber, Dwyer’s lawyer.

The school could have decided “‘this is a great opportunity to find out what is happening among our students and what are students are thinking,’” Barber said. “That’s an even better way to prevent a Columbine-like experience. [Here is a] way the First Amendment serves the interest of school administrators and students.”

Calvert warns that on-campus punishment for off-campus expression will have a chilling affect on student online expression, including online or underground student publications. 

“It harms the marketplace of ideas,” Calvert said. “Education is being exposed to all ideas and appreciating democracy. As long as it’s not defamatory, obscene, not child pornography or fighting words, why not let the speech come out? School administrators need to grow thicker skins.”

The lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J.