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Appeals Court Weighs Teen's Web Speech

  Breaking Legal News  -   POSTED: 2008/03/05 15:36

A teen who used vulgar slang in an Internet blog to complain about school administrators shouldn't have been punished by the school, her lawyer told a federal appeals court.

But a lawyer for the Burlington, Conn., school told the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday that administrators should be allowed to act if such comments are made on the Web.

Avery Doninger, 17, claims officials at Lewis S. Mills High School violated her free speech rights when they barred her from serving on the student council because of what she wrote from her home computer.

In her Internet journal, Doninger said officials were canceling the school's annual Jamfest, which is similar to a battle of the bands contest. The event, which she helped coordinate, was rescheduled.

According to the lawsuit, she wrote: "`Jamfest' is canceled due to douchebags in central office," and also referred to an administrator who was "pissed off."

After discovering the blog entry, school officials refused to allow Doninger to run for re-election as class secretary. Doninger won anyway with write-in votes, but was not allowed to serve.

A lower federal court had supported the school. U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz, denying Doninger's request for an injunction, said he believed she could be punished for writing in a blog because the blog addressed school issues and was likely to be read by other students.

Her lawyer, Jon L. Schoenhorn, told the appeals court Tuesday that what students write on the Internet should not give schools more cause to regulate off-campus speech.

"It's just a bigger soapbox," he said.

But Thomas R. Gerarde, an attorney for school officials, argued that the Internet has completely changed the way students communicate.

The three-judge panel of the appeals court did not issue a ruling after the arguments.

In 1969, the Supreme Court said schools could ban expression if they can show that not doing so would interfere with schoolwork or discipline. In a later ruling, it allowed officials to bar "vulgar and lewd" speech if it would undermine the school's educational mission. But both cases involved events that occurred on school property or during a school activity.


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