Online speech case sparks Conn. lawmaker to propose student expression bill

CONNECTICUT — Even before a U.S. District Court judgedecided the Avery Doninger case last month, one Connecticut lawmaker was drawingup plans to ensure students’ right to speak freely online would beprotected in the future.

Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, has introduced legislation that wouldprohibit Connecticut school authorities from punishing students for the contentof electronically transmitted correspondence — such as blog posts, textmessages, or e-mails.

LeBeau said he was motivated to write the bill after Avery Doninger, anow-graduated Connecticut high school student, was punished for disparagingremarks she wrote about school administrators on her off-campus blog — aclear violation of her First Amendment rights, according to LeBeau.

“It’s a basic right that shouldn’t be impinged uponwithout an extremely important reason,” LeBeau said in a press release.”The key is the rationale for punishing students for speech that is ‘potentially disruptive.’ But if it’s not done in school, ifit doesn’t use school resources, and it is not sent to school computers,then it’s minimally disruptive at best and should be protected as freespeech.”

According to U.S. District Court Judge Mark Kravitz, who decidedDoninger’s case and granted qualified immunity to the Lewis S. Mills HighSchool administrators, the line is not so clear.

“Today, students are connected to each other through email, instantmessaging, blogs, social networking sites, and text messages,” he wrote inhis opinion, dismissing Doninger’s primary First Amendment claim againstschool officials. “Off-campus speech can become on-campus speech with theclick of a mouse.”

The court’s ruling went on to say that school administrators arewithin their rights to punish offensive off-campus speech so long as the speechposes a “reasonably foreseeable risk of coming on to schoolproperty.”

First Amendment advocates, though, maintain that the nature of onlinecommunication — its potential to spread quickly and ubiquitously — does not change students’ rights to free speech. In Doninger’s case,for example, evidence showed that very few students ever saw the blog postbefore its removal, according to Frank LoMonte, director of the Student PressLaw Center.

“[Doninger] could have just as effectively reached the same sizedaudience by phoning all of her friends,” LoMonte said. “There isthis perception that somehow the Internet changes everything, and a lot of thatis a myth.”

Until the Supreme Court clarifies the law in this area or until states — like Connecticut — pass legislation defining students’ rightto expression in the Internet age, LoMonte said, cases regarding electronicmedia and student speech will continue to plague high schools around thecountry.

LeBeau is hoping to provide some of that clarity for his own state with SB487, which has been referred to the Joint Committee on Education where it awaitsreview.

“I’m trying to create a bright line here,” LeBeausaid.