Court Upholds Student Free Speech Rights on Internet

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

In the latest ACLU case backing student rights in cyberspace, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee today ruled that public school officials cannot punish a student for free speech outside of school. The ruling came in the case of Karl Beidler, who was suspended for a month last year from Timberline High School in Lacey, Wash., for posting an Internet parody lampooning the school’s assistant principal. The student created the parody on his own computer at home on his own time. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is providing legal representation to the student and his parents. 

"This ruling sends an important message to public school administrators that they do not have the authority to punish students for expressing their opinions outside of school and without the use of any school resources. The First Amendment protects a student from being kicked out of school just because officials don’t like what the student is saying," said ACLU-WA staff attorney Aaron Caplan. "Some people might be offended by the student’s parody. But it’s up to his parents, not the school district, to impose any discipline," added Caplan.

Karl Beidler, then a 17-year-old junior at Timberline High School, created the Web site parody on Jan. 21, 1999. It included a disclaimer that "…everything on it has been created out of my imagination or someone I know’s imagination" and that "… all pictures are parody pictures …" On Jan. 29 school authorities expelled Karl from Timberline on an "emergency" basis because of his Internet satire. District officials claimed their action was based on an emergency, yet no evidence has been given of anything remotely resembling an emergency. His parents decided to take the Web site off the Internet that night. On Feb. 2 the principal informed Karl and his parents that the student was suspended for the rest of the school year – for "exceptional misconduct." After missing a month of classes, Karl was allowed to enroll in an alternative school in the District. This year he again attended school at Timberline and graduated.

In his ruling Judge McPhee made clear that free speech rights apply to speech on the Internet, saying, "Today the First Amendment protects students’ speech to the same extent as in 1979 or 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Tinker v. Des Moines." In that case, the high court issued a landmark ruling that, "Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Judge McPhee ordered that a trial be held to determine damages for North Thurston School District’s unlawful imposition of discipline. ACLU cooperating attorney Robert Hedrick is representing the Beidlers.

The decision is the most recent in a series of ACLU victories for student free speech rights in cyberspace. This February, Chief Judge John Coughenour of the United States District Court in Seattle issued an order preventing Kentlake High School from suspending a student Nick Emmett because of a Web site parody he had created on his home computer. In final settlement of the case, Kent School District agreed not to pursue disciplinary action against the student and paid $6,000 in attorney’s fees. Also in February, the Lake Washington School Board in Redmond decided not to punish three students who had created on their home computers a Web site on which another person posted a death threat. The ACLU represented the students in contesting the discipline.

In a widely publicized incident, the ACLU in 1995 reached an out-of-court settlement with Bellevue School District on claims stemming from punitive actions taken against Newport High School student Paul Kim. Like Beidler, Kim had used his home computer on his own time to create an Internet parody relating to his school. The school principal contacted colleges to which he had applied and National Merit officials, withdrawing the school’s endorsement of the student. Under terms of the settlement, the school district recognized the right of students to engage in free speech on the Internet, issued an apology to Kim for punitive actions, and paid him $2,000 in compensation for the loss of his National Merit Scholarship.