Student settles with Fla. district over Facebook posts

FLORIDA — Aformer Pembroke Pines Charter High School student suspended for criticalFacebook postings about her teacher has settled with the school after athree-year legal battle.

Katherine “Katie” Evans signed the settlement in November,in which the school agrees to remove any record of her suspension or theinitial incident and pay $15,000 in attorney fees and $1 in nominal damages.The school signed the settlement in December.

“At the end of the day we got everything that we asked for;we got an incredible ruling from the judge,” Evans’ attorney Matthew D. Bavarosaid. “This case was never about money, it was about standing up for Katie’sFirst Amendment rights and the removal of the documents from her file, and weachieved it all.”

On Feb. 12, U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Garber ruled thatEvans’ Facebook post was protected under the First Amendment. He also deniedprincipal Peter Bayer’s motion to dismiss the case and his qualified immunitydefenses.

Randall Marshall, legal director of the ACLU of Florida,said once Garber’s decision was released, it took care of most of thelitigation and it made sense to settle.

Evans was suspended for disruptive behavior and cyberbullingin 2007 after creating a Facebook page critical of her Advanced PlacementEnglish teacher. Evans wrote, “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve evermet. To those students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps,or simply knowing her and her insane antics: Here is the place to express yourfeelings of hatred.” Evans was also removed from her AP-level classes by Bayer.

Bavaro said he found the punishment in this case unique.

“Many of the cases that have been filed around the countrydealt with threats or advocating drug use or illegal activity,” he said. “Inthis case, Katie’s speech was maybe insulting but rather benign.”

Evans, now a student at the University of Florida, removedthe page a few days after it was created when three commenters on the pageshowed support for the teacher.

Marshall said school officials were not aware of the pagebefore Evans took the page down and the teacher did not see it while it wasstill up.

“It’s hard to imagine that anybody could seriously claimthat a teacher was somehow cyberbullied or anything else with that kind ofposting,” he said.

Evans filed suit in 2008 in the U.S. District Court for theSouthern District of Florida, seeking an order for the school to expunge thediscipline from her record, a declaration that Bayer violated herconstitutional rights, attorney fees and nominal damages.

Both Bavaro and Marshall expect the law will soon have tocatch up to technology.

“[There’s] no doubt in my mind,” Bavaro said. “The law isclearly going to have to adapt and establish First Amendment principles insocial networking situations.”

“Without a doubt. I think we will increasingly see casesthat involve not only students but perhaps teachers as well,” Marshall said. “Ithink we’re seeing those across the country already, but it certainly is atrend I think we’re going to see more and more of.”

Evans was not available for comment. E-mails and calls toBayer and his attorney, E. Bruce Johnson, were not returned.