CONNECTICUT — A rising senior at Lewis S. Mills High School who was removed from her student government post for comments she made on her blog sued the school district July 16, claiming her First Amendment rights were violated.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction ordering the school to allow the student, Avery Doninger, to deliver her campaign speech, participate in a new election and serve if she wins, according to Avery’s mother, Lauren Doninger.
Furious that the school had canceled a concert she and other students had been planning for months, Avery logged on to LiveJournal.com, an online diary community she had joined years earlier but had not updated in months, from her home computer on the night of April 24.
“I just kind of vented, and I said ‘Jamfest is canceled due to the douche bags in central office,'” Avery said in a phone interview.
When the principal, Karissa Niehoff, discovered the entry, she administratively removed Avery on May 17 from her position as class secretary and barred her from running for a fourth term for her senior year.
When Avery told her mother about the punishment, Doninger called Niehoff and arranged an appointment.
“I didn’t like the language that Avery used. I would like her to be more sophisticated in her discourse, and I hope that that’s one of the things that will come from this,” Doninger said. “But I absolutely believe that she had the right to voice her opinion.”
At her meeting with Niehoff, Doninger warned her that disciplining students for off-campus online behavior was impossible to enforce consistently.
“If they were going to remove students from activities based on their LiveJournals, their MySpaces, then they were going to have to be removing kids from all sorts of activities if this was the new standard,” Doninger said.
Niehoff did not return calls seeking comment.
On the day of the election, from which Avery was excluded, five of her friends wore T-shirts that said “Team Avery” on the front and “Support LSM Free Speech” on the back. Doninger said Niehoff “had a fit” when she saw the shirts and told the students to remove them.
“[That] does not even begin to meet the Tinker standard,” Doninger said, referring to the substantial disruption test established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
Avery also accused the school of ignoring a write-in campaign. “My entire class and people who weren’t even in my class wrote me in under secretary, and the office counted those votes,” she said. “But you have to wonder what happened to them because they never said anything about them.”
Doninger followed up on her conference with Niehoff with several e-mails and a written appeal to the superintendent before resorting to litigation last week.
“When we couldn’t make any headway, we decided that we needed to move forward, that we had to maintain democracy by utilizing the system to ensure rights,” she said. “But we really tried to avoid that.”
The lawsuit contends Avery should not have been disqualified from that election because the principal overstepped her authority in punishing Avery for off-campus speech.
“Because she’d done this at home on a home computer, it was just so outside the school’s jurisdiction,” Doninger said. “They should not be in the business of policing the Internet. That’s not their job. They have a big enough job already.”
“For the school to get involved and punish me like that is just out of line and inappropriate and illegal,” Avery said. “Like, they can’t do that.”
An attorney for the school district, Chris Chinni, said she was unable to comment, citing confidentiality statutes.
“There’s not much I can tell you without violating the student’s privacy rights,” she said. “The family’s at a distinct advantage here because they’re allowed to say anything they want to and we can’t.”