Ruling backs school in free speech case

Discipline upheld for Conn. student on Internet post

Associated Press / January 19, 2009
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BURLINGTON, Conn. - Burlington school officials acted within their rights to discipline a student for an Internet posting she wrote off school grounds, a federal judge has ruled.

US District Court Judge Mark Kravitz rejected Avery Doninger's claim that administrators at Lewis B. Mills High School violated her rights of free speech and equal protection.

She also alleged they inflicted emotional distress when they barred her from serving as class secretary because of the 2007 posting, which criticized the administrators for canceling a popular school activity.

Kravitz's ruling relied partly on the ambiguity over whether schools can regulate students' expression on the Internet. He noted in his ruling that times have changed since 1979, when a landmark student speech case set boundaries for schools regulating off-campus speech.

Now, he wrote, students can send e-mails to hundreds of classmates at a time or post entries that can be read instantly by students, teachers, and administrators.

"Off-campus speech can become on-campus speech with the click of a mouse," Kravitz wrote.

Kravitz cited previous rulings in his decision that school administrators were entitled to qualified immunity. That shields public officials from lawsuits for damages unless they violate clearly established rights that a reasonable official would have known.

The officials could not reasonably be expected "to predict where the line between on- and off-campus speech will be drawn in this new digital era," he wrote.

Kravitz's ruling let Doninger's claim stand that her right to free speech was "chilled" when an administrator prohibited students from wearing T-shirts that read "Team Avery" to a student council election assembly. That matter can proceed to trial.

Doninger's attorney, Jon Schoenhorn, plans to appeal the rest of the ruling and said the case may ultimately have to be decided by the US Supreme Court.

"We are not backing down," he said.

Thomas R. Gerarde, attorney for Regional School District 10, likened the case to "taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning" and pointed out that every ruling has favored the district so far.

"The school district is pleased to have won another decided victory in this seemingly never-ending saga," Gerarde said.

The case stemmed from a 2007 dispute over comments that Doninger, then the junior class secretary, made about administrators in her blog after they canceled a popular event she helped plan.

The event was later rescheduled.

Administrators prohibited Doninger from seeking reelection as class secretary, but she refused to withdraw her candidacy and won as a write-in candidate. The school then barred her from serving in the post.

Doninger, who graduated in 2008, now works for AmeriCorps in an impoverished school in Denver.

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