Florida high school student files complaint after suspension for creating Facebook page critical of teacher

FLORIDA — A former South Florida high school student is suing tochallenge a three-day suspension that she incurred after creating an off-campusWeb site that criticized her English instructor as “the worst teacher I’veever met” and invited others to post additional criticisms.

Katherine Evans, a former student at Pembroke Pines Charter High School inPembroke Pines, Fla., alleges that the November 2007 disciplinary action –which also included removing her from Advanced Placement classes that carriedbonus grade-point-average weight — violated her First Amendmentrights.

Attorneys for Evans filed a complaint Monday in the U.S. District Court forthe Southern District of Florida, seeking a declaration that Principal PeterBayer violated her constitutional rights, along with an order directing theschool to purge all mention of the discipline from Evans’ record, nominalmonetary damages and attorney fees.

The dispute stems from a page that Evans posted on Facebook, asocial-networking Web site, denouncing her AP English teacher for her”insane antics” and inviting others to “express your feelingsof hatred” by posting messages to the site. According to the complaintfiled with the court, the Web site was up for only two days, over a weekend, andwas not seen by the teacher before Evans voluntarily pulled it down. TheFacebook site attracted only three posted comments, all of them supporting theteacher and criticizing Evans.

Evans was disciplined on the grounds of violating Broward County schoolboard policies against “Bullying / Cyber bullying / Harassment towards astaff member” and “Disruptive behavior,” according to a copyof her Notice of Suspension attached to the complaint.

The complaint contends that punishing Evans for purely off-campus speechthat created no disruption at school violated her right to free speech.Attorneys Randall Marshall and Maria Kayanan of the American Civil LibertiesUnion of Florida staff and outside legal counsel Matthew D. Bavaro filed thecomplaint.

“Students cannot be punished for posting comments online from theirhome computers criticizing their teachers. Absent a credible threat of harm,criticism is protected by the First Amendment,” Kayanan, associatelegal director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a news release.

A complaint represents merely the allegations of one side in a legaldispute, and the other side is permitted to file an answer responding to theallegations. Charles Dodge, superintendent of the Pembroke Pines charter schoolsystem, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he was unaware of thelawsuit and could not comment.

Student online speech is a prolific area of First Amendment litigation. The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral argumentsWednesday in the case of Layshock v. Hermitage School District, in whicha Pennsylvania school district is appealing a lower court’s ruling thatthe district violated a student’s First Amendment rights by suspending himfor posting sarcastic comments mocking his principal on a MySpace page.