Ga. school agrees to expunge records of students punished for Internet postings

GEORGIA — Gwinnett County Public Schools officials have agreed to clear the disciplinary records of two former students who were punished for posting comments about a teacher on a Web site unaffiliated with the school.

The agreement, announced Aug. 3, resolves a lawsuit filed by the two students and their fathers, claiming the school district violated the students’ First Amendment rights.

“[The agreement] sends a message to all schools that they can’t exceed their authority and reach into the private homes and private conversations of their students,” said Beth Littrell, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, who represented the students.

The two Brookwood High School graduates will also receive $95,000, and the school district has agreed to rewrite a student expression policy so it follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Under to the Tinker ruling, school officials can only censor certain speech that would cause a material and substantial disruption to the school.

In a statement released by school district officials, the case is described as an issue of school safety — not First Amendment rights, although it does say that the comments disrupted the school.

The postings by Lloyd Goldsmith Jr. and Edward Alexander Morgan described a specific language arts teacher at the school and then commented “filthy whore’s gotta die.” They also suggested a school maintenance worker “throw the whore onto the ground and ram his mop through her head, and then sell the wig to headhunters. Then we can all throw a party and piss on the bitch’s cooling corpse,” according to the district’s statement.

The students did not post the comments from school or bring copies to school. Another student reported the comments to a school administrator.

The Web site, which was created by another Brookwood High School student, was used by students to vent frustrations about the teacher and included “some hypothetical scenarios which visualized some fictional acts,” but “did not contain any direct threats or expressions of intent to commit any violent acts,” according to the students’ lawsuit.

The school district officials agreed to settle the case because the two had graduated, however, they reaffirmed their stance against abuse, threats or intimidation of school employees.

Since graduating, the two have enrolled in college, though one did not get into his first-choice school, perhaps because of the disciplinary mark, Littrell said. Morgan was suspended for 10 days and was required to perform 20 hours of community service, and Goldsmith was suspended for 28 days and was required to perform 40 hours of community service.

“These were good students who hadn’t been in trouble before, and yet on their records they had both been disciplined for severe infractions that appeared to make them seem like discipline problems,” she said.

One student hopes to transfer schools now that his disciplinary record will be cleared.

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