Suspension for violent, sexually explicit story did not violate student’s rights, court rules

NEW YORK — A U.S. District Court for the Eastern District ruled this month that school officials did not violate a student’s rights when he was suspended for writing a violent and sexually explicit story using the names of his classmates.

Dylan Finkle, 13, wrote a three chapter story titled "Costume Party," which chronicled a student who kills several of his classmates and depicts others in violent sexual situations. Finkle read the story aloud to classmates, which prompted one teacher to turn him in to the principal.

After the suspension was handed down, Dylan’s father, Andrew Finkle, sued the Syosset Board of Education, superintendent Carole Hankin and Thompson Middle School principal James Kassebaum for violating his son’s state and federal rights. In addition, Finkle sued Kassebaum for defamation regarding statements made about Dylan Finkle’s behavior to the parents of the students named in the story.

Andrew Finkle claimed that Dylan’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech had been breached "when he was suspended solely because the Defendants disagreed with the content of his journal," according to court documents.

The court ruled in favor of the school, saying, "Speech that constitutes a true threat of violence, by being a ‘serious expression of an intent to cause present or future harm,’ may be prohibited."

"It is well established that school administrators have the right to prohibit speech that ‘materially or substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,’" said the court, citing Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District.

In that 1969 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said that students were allowed to express themselves freely unless their actions caused a "material and substantial disruption" of normal school operations or an invasion of the rights of other students.

"The story, with its graphic depictions of the murder of specifically named students and sex between named students, may materially interfere with the work of the school by disturbing the students and the teachers," concluded the court.

The court also dismissed the defamation claim against Kassebaum.

"Kassebaum’s statements, that Plaintiff engaged in ‘threatening behavior’ and ‘harassment of a deviant sexual nature,’ are certainly truthful in regards to those whose names appear in the story," the court said.

According to an article in Newsday, a Long Island, N.Y. newspaper, Andrew Finkle plans to appeal the decision.

by Clay Gaynor, SPLC staff writer

  • Case: Finkle v. Bd. of Ed. of Syosset Central School District, 2005 WL 2219096, No. CV-04-4251 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 12, 2005)