New Jersey student receives $117,500 in First Amendment claim settlement

New Jersey school officials will pay a former student $117,500 to settle a lawsuit he filed claiming administrators violated his First Amendment rights after they punished him for material posted on his private, off-campus Web site.

The settlement comes as a result of an April 3 decision in which a U.S. district court judge found Oceanport School District officials violated Ryan Dwyer’s right to free speech, according to an article in the Asbury Park Press, a community paper.

School officials expressed satisfaction with the settlement, announced Nov. 6, in a written statement issued by Armen McOmber, the board’s attorney.

“The Board of Education of the Borough of Oceanport is pleased to announce that the dispute between the Dwyer family and the Board of Education … is over,” the statement reads. “The Board of Education expressed its regret for the entire incident.”

Dwyer was an eighth grader at Maple Place Middle School in 2003 when school officials suspended him for a week, removed him from the school baseball team for a month and barred him from a class trip because of his “Anti-Maple Place” Web site. The site described the school as “downright boring” and urged visitors to sign a guest book to express their hatred for the school.

According to Dwyer’s lawsuit, filed in late 2003, the site was designed to provide a forum for students to criticize school officials and show students “why their school isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.”

The site instructed visitors not to use profanity or threaten teachers. Dwyer dismantled the site at the instruction of school officials less than a week after it went online.

In addition to the monetary damages, the statement says the district agreed to “conduct a seminar for its students, teachers and administrators on the relationship between rights granted to students by the United States Constitution and the right of Oceanport Public Schools to assure that the conduct of its students is consistent with Board Rules and Regulations and with the law.”

“I’m hopeful this will help ensure that free speech rights of students aren’t trampled on again,” Ryan Dwyer told the New York Post.

Case:  Dwyer v. Oceanport Sch. Dist., et al., No. 03-6005, slip op. (D. N.J. Mar. 31, 2005).

SPLC View: This is but the latest in a growing list of cases that have struck down attempts by public school officials to punish students for their off-campus speech. Unfortunately, school officials continue to ignore the law. Unlike some of the previous cases, however, this one gave school officials not simply a slap on the wrist, but a bill for $117,500 – something we hope will force even the most obstinate school officials to take notice.

For more information and practical tips for avoiding trouble when publishing online, check out the SPLC Guide to Off-Campus Web sites at: