Precinct 333

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Student Wins Net Speech Dispute

Ryan Dwyer was an eighth grader at Maple Place Middle School in Oceanport, New Jersey, didn’t like his school. He disliked it so much that he created a website about it – one which provided a forum for others to talk about school and encouraged other students to make “I Hate maple Place” stickers for their notebooks. In other words, he acted sort of juvenile – just like a normal eighth grader.

Until the school decided his site constituted a threat, demanded it be shut down, and suspended the boy because the site offended school officials. No policy or law was ever cited by any district official as grounds for the punishment, just vague claims that the site contained threats and constituted possible criminal conduct.

Launched in April 2003, the Web site greeted users with the legend, “Welcome to the Anti-Maple Place — Your Friendly Environment,” and said: “This page is dedicated to showing students why their school isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. You may be shocked at what you find on this site.”

Ryan urged students to make stickers that said “I hate Maple Place” and also wrote, “Don’t even try to make me take my Web site down because it is illegal to do so!”

Users who wished to leave comments were instructed not to use profanity and “no threats to any teacher or person EVER.”

Some visitor comments criticized the school and its teachers, but others, the lawsuit conceded, “were arguably crude, sophomoric and offensive.” Ryan never made threats or profanity, it said.

[Judge] Chesler wrote that the defendants “could only have lawfully disciplined Ryan for statements and other content created and provided by him, and not for any comments made by other individuals in his guest book.”

Perhaps most alarming is that despite the family’s cooperation with the school’s censorship of out-of-school speech, Ryan was suspended for a week, banned from the school baseball team for a month, and denied the right to go on a class trip to Philadelphia. It seems pretty clear that the goal was not just to remove any material that violated school policies (there were no such policies), but to punish the boy for activities over which the school had no legitimate basis for controlling.

Today, Ryan is a sophomore at Shore Regional High School, and he noted the following about the case.

“When I was in eighth grade, it kind of just seemed like I couldn’t do anything about it,” Ryan said. “Now I realize that I missed out on a lot of things, and it feels good that they got proved wrong about what they did.”

“I was really surprised that the school administrators actually thought they could punish me for just saying a couple of things about them,” he said.

Sadly, there are still too many school administrators out there who forget that students do not shed their liberties at the schoolhouse gate, and that whatever limits are legitimate at school do not follow the student home. Sadly, the judge ruled that the principal and superintendent could not be held personally liable for their violation of Ryan’s rights. That’s too bad, because only that will convince some administrators that the dictates of the US Constitution apply to their actions.


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