Federal magistrate Barry Garber has ruled that a lawsuit can proceed for what a student said was a violation of her First Amendment rights after she was suspended for setting up a Facebook page that criticized her teacher.
Katherine Evans was a junior in Pembroke Pines Charter High School in 2007 when she created a web page about her Advanced Placement English teacher.
"At home on her computer, Ms. Evans created a Facebook page titled “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever had” and invited past and current students of Ms. Phelps to post their own comments," described an article in the New York Times. Not everyone agreed with her, and after a couple of days, she took the page down, but a couple of months later, she was suspended.
Evans sued the principal, arguing that her comments were protected under the First Amendment, and asking for nominal monetary damages, legal fees, and the removal of the suspension from her academic record. Because it was written off-campus, and "was not lewd, vulgar, threatening, or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior," Garber ruled the lawsuit could go forward.
But her case is hardly alone, writes Jonathan Zimmerman in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Evans’ actions seem downright tame next to two recent cases here in Pennsylvania, where students created fake MySpace profiles to ridicule their principals. On one of the fake pages, a student depicted his principal boasting of steroid and marijuana use; on the other, the principal was cast as a pedophile and sex addict. In each case, the students behind the fake profiles were suspended; like Katherine Evans, they later sued their schools on First Amendment grounds. And earlier this month, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued conflicting rulings on the fake pages: The first one was protected speech, but the second was not."
Zimmerman goes onto explain the history behind student free speech. "All of these decisions rested on the Supreme Court’s landmark 1969 ruling, Tinker v. Des Moines, which allowed students to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War. As the court famously pronounced, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” To suppress student speech, the court added, officials must show that it would “disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” And the black armbands didn’t do that."
The Evans case is scheduled to go to trial this spring, the Times said.