Judge rules Univ. of Del. violated student's First Amendment rights in Web site case

DELAWARE — A U.S. District Court judge awarded nominal damagesto a University of Delaware student, acknowledging the college violated thestudent’s First Amendment rights by punishing him for offensive butnon-threatening speech on a personal Web page.

Judge Mary Pat Thynge wrote in her Sept. 4 opinion that Student MaciejMurakowski did not constitute a “true threat” when creating andwriting what he termed as a humorous Web site, which was hosted on theschool’s servers.

Murakowski claimed damages “for the delay in his graduation andentering the workforce as a chemical engineer, as well as, attorney’s feesand costs for violation of his constitutional rights” because of hissuspension. The judge denied his claim for actual damages but was awarded $10 innominal damages. The judge said the plaintiff had not proven his case to supportpunitive damages.

“The favorable finding on the First Amendment claim is merely ajudicial acknowledgment of his right to free speech,” Thynge wrote.

Murakowski said he did not want to sue the school because he said it hadbeen good to him, but he felt he did not have a choice in the matter, saying itwas a matter of principle.

“I’m glad that my First Amendment rights exist, but not gettingawarded attorney’s fees is a slap in the face,” he said.

Murakowski said he does not consider himself a journalist and only writesas a hobby.

“Clearly, his ‘essays’ are sophomoric, immature, crudeand highly offensive in an alleged misguided attempt at humor or parody,”

Thynge wrote in her opinion. “They do not, however, evidence a seriousexpression of intent to inflict harm.”

Thynge said the university was concerned by 10 of over 80 articles onMurakowski’s Web site, some of which included, “How to Skin aCat,” “Maciej’s Official Guide to Sex” and”Talking About Sex” where he described such sexual positions as”The John F. Kennedy” and “The Good Wife…makedinner.”

According to the opinion, the University was not able to proveMurakowski’s writings caused a “disruption or was likely to doso.”

“While certain students, a parent and University officials wereoffended, other students did not take his ‘works’ seriously or viewthem as threatening,” Thynge wrote.

The judge noted that a number of Murakowski’s postings had beenonline for months before anyone complained, and that only one studentcomplainant — who was upset enough to seek counseling — appeared tobe seriously affected by the writings. “Although complete chaos isnot required, something more than distraction or discomfiture created by thespeech is needed,” the judge wrote.

According to court records, on April 20, Murakowski was called into a vicepresident’s office where she expressed concern about the post titled,”Talking About Sex.” Murakowski’s father, a researcher for thecollege, also attended the meeting. There, the administrator informed Murakowskihe would be charged through the university’s judicial system andprohibited from living in his residence hall or attending classes untilreceiving a psychiatric assessment; a letter from a licensed mental healthprovider proving he was not a threat, and granting the university permission tospeak with the health provider to confirm the conclusions or recommendations.

Murakowski agreed to the terms and was eventually banned from going to thecollege by the school’s judicial board. Several days prior to the meeting,the Virginia Tech massacre took place. Judge Thynge acknowledged in her opinionthat the massacre legitimately heightened concerns over violence on campus.

“Understandably the University was seriously concerned and motivatedby that concern,” she wrote. “However, despite its good intentions,the University has not shown that Murakowski’s articles or his websitecreated disruption or significantly and adversely impacted the collegecommunity.”

Murakowski’s attorney, David Finger, said he was pleased with thedecision.

“We’re very happy that Maciej is right,” he said.”His free speech under the First Amendment has beenvindicated.”

A spokesman for the college faxed a statement saying, “The Universityof Delaware is pleased with the decision.”

The school also pointed to the court’s finding thatMurakowski’s due process rights were not violated by the school’sdisciplinary procedures, and that his suspension from school was justified ongrounds unrelated to the content of his speech — his defiance of an ordernot to return to his dorm room.

Murakowski said he was not planning on cashing the $10 check, but jokinglysaid he would “frame the check and get the UD president and judicialaffairs people to sign it.””It’s not really worthcashing,” he said.

Neil Thomas, Office of Communications and Marketing senior associatedirector for the University of Delaware, said he was “not sure if we aregoing to appeal” the decision.