Student Gets Damages in Web Parody Case

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

A former high school student who was suspended for creating a parody on the Internet is getting damages from the school district that wrongfully punished him.  Karl Beidler will receive $10,000 in damages from North Thurston School District for actions it took that violated his free speech rights.  The award of damages follows a July, 2000 ruling by a Thurston County Superior Court judge that public school officials cannot punish a student for speech outside of school.  In addition to the damage award, the school district has agreed to pay $52,000 in attorney fees.  ACLU cooperating attorney Bob Hedrick provided legal representation to the student and his parents.

“This case sends a 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 staff attorney Aaron Caplan.  

Beidler was suspended for a month in 1999 from Timberline High School in Lacey for posting an Internet parody lampooning the school’s assistant principal.  Then a junior, the student created the satire on his own computer at home on his own time.  After the ACLU got involved in the case, he was allowed to enroll in an alternative school in the District.  Last year he returned to Timberline and graduated with his class.

The court ruling made clear that free speech rights apply to speech on the Internet.  Judge Thomas McPhee said, “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.”

The Beidler decision was the most recent in a series of ACLU victories for student free speech rights in cyberspace.  Earlier last year, Chief Judge John Coughenour of the U.S. District Court in Seattle issued an order preventing Kentlake High School from suspending 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.