ARKANSAS — Two personal Web sites featuring violent cartoons and vulgar language were enough to reasonably disrupt school practices and to warrant the suspension of the sites’ student authors, even though the sites were never accessed at school, a federal magistrate recommended Sept. 28.
In her 18-page report, U.S. Magistrate Beverly Stites Jones ruled against Greenwood High School seniors Justin Neal and Ryan Kuhl, who filed a lawsuit against Principal Jerry Efurd and the Greenwood School District. The students claim the suspensions violated their First Amendment and due process rights.
Pending objection by the students, a district court judge can now rule in accordance with or against the magistrate’s findings.
Kuhl, 18, and Neal, 17, were suspended for three days on Aug. 24 for comments and comics posted on personal Web sites. Both sites were created in the boys’ homes and were not accessed from school.
Neal’s comic strip, called “Greentree,” portrayed a talking intercom and a gun-toting disciplinarian who shoots two students–depicted as gray circles–after they fail to raise their hands in excitement for the new school year. Neal said the two figures were not meant to be specific renditions of Efurd or Vice Principal Jim Garvey but instead were stereotypical administrative personalities.
Kuhl, whose online journal “Fuck Greenwood” was linked to Neal’s comic strip, posted lamentations of the new school year and criticism of the “dreadfully boring” orientation students were required to attend.
After the sites created what Garvey described as a “buzz” at school, the students were suspended. Garvey testified that the Web sites created “disgruntlement, which disrupted the harmony of the school.”
“Although the defendants’ evidence of substantial interference within the first few days of school was not particularly strong, educators do not have to wait for substantial disruption to occur as long as it is reasonably foreseeable,” the ruling states.
Jones also stated that because neither Kuhl nor Neal appealed their suspensions to the superintendent, their rights to due process were not impeded. Chip Sexton, attorney for the students, said he would file an objection to the report by the Oct.7 deadline.
Both students said they were confused and concerned when approached about the Web sites.
“I didn’t see how they could discipline me [for] something that was clearly outside school,” Neal said. He said Garvey pulled him out of class and told him that his site was a federal offense and that the police and state prosecuting attorney had been contacted. Kuhl said he was told the same thing.
“I didn’t question their authority,” Kuhl said. “I had never been in the principal’s office before. I had never been in trouble, so this really scared me.”
While surprised by the magistrate’s report, Sexton said he is confident the district judge will follow the law. Most courts have limited the ability of schools to punish students for expression they engage in outside of school.
“The only evidence of [school] disruption was the 20 students who went to [Vice Principal] Garvey over a few days to talk about the Web sites,” he said. “That’s not a disruption of the school. His job is to talk to students.”
Efurd directed requests for comment to Superintendent Kay Johnson, who said the sites caused dissention among the student body.
“We have board policy that allows us to act on things that disrupt school whether it happened on school grounds or elsewhere,” Johnson said.