Mo. students sue after blog posts land them six-month suspensions

MISSOURI — Twoparents are suing the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District for violating theirsons’ First Amendment rights after administrators suspended them for six monthsover an online blog about the school.

High school juniors and twin brothers Steven and Sean Wilsonwere suspended in December for 180 days because of their involvement with theblog, North Press, according to a complaint filed March 6 in the U.S. District Courtfor the Western District of Missouri.

The blog included a post with racial epithets and sexuallyexplicit posts about a named female student, according to court documents.

The Wilsons – described as A students and aspiring leadersin the school band – are attending an alternative school during theirsuspension. The students’ attorney is asking a judge to reinstate them to Lee’sSummit North High School.

Court documents indicate Steven Wilson used a schoolcomputer Dec. 13 to upload the files for a basic WordPress blog, but that thebrothers did not write any posts or customize the site until they got home fromschool.

The students appealed their suspension to the school boardin February. According to a transcript of that hearing, a third student – notnamed in the lawsuit – also had administrative privileges to publish posts onthe blog. The Wilsons claim the third student posted the racial epithet beforeschool Dec. 16 without their knowledge. After students began talking about thatpost at school, the third student left school later that morning and deletedall of the posts on North Press, according to the hearing transcript.

The Wilsons do admit to writing other posts on the siteabout a named female student. One of them referred to her as “the biggest bitchin the whole school.”

The website used a Dutch domain name, which the Wilsonsclaim was to keep people from finding the site through search engines.According to court documents, the Wilsons intended for the site to be satiricaland only seen by a small group of five or six friends.

School officials claim the site caused a disruption. School district attorney Shellie Guin said the district is hopeful the court will findthat it was within its full legal rights to take disciplinary action.

The Wilsons’ attorney, Aaron Schwartz, declined to comment.

The case joins a growing number of lawsuits addressing thefree speech rights of students online. The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressedthe issue, and lower courts are divided. A recent ruling by the 8th U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals upheld school discipline of another Missouri studentwho sent instant messages from his home computer that the court foundthreatening and disruptive.

The Lee’s Summit case will be the first to decide whetherthat ruling applies only to threatening speech or to any off-campus speech thatcould disrupt school. The Wilsons argue there was no substantial disruption ofschool anyway.

A federal judge in Kansas City has fast-tracked the case. Ahearing is set for Wednesday, after which the court will decide whether toissue a preliminary injunction returning the students to Lee’s Summit North.