Student Speech in the Facebook Era

By Mark Walsh — February 18, 2009 1 min read
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This past weekend, Yale Law School examined a student speech case that has attracted wide notice in public education.

I wasn’t at the conference titled “The Future of Student Internet Speech: What Are We Teaching the Facebook Generation?” But the Yale Daily News reported Tuesday that the case “pitting Connecticut public school administrators against a high school student’s personal blog took center stage” at the conference. (Hat tip to How Appealing.)

The case is Doninger v. Niehoff, which has been bouncing around from the U.S. District Court in Connecticut to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, and back to the district court.

I blogged about last year’s 2nd Circuit ruling in the case here. The court held that a student’s off-campus blog remarks created a “foreseeable risk of substantial disruption” at her high school, and thus she was not entitled to a preliminary injunction reversing her discipline.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of student Avery Doninger alleged that she was barred from serving in a student office because of derogatory comments she wrote about school officials on a Web blogging site.

In a controversy over the scheduling of a social event at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Conn., Doninger wrote in an entry in her public blog at the site that “jamfest is cancelled due to douchebags in central office” and that readers should contact the superintendent “to piss her off more.”

The appeals court said in its May 2008 decision that the blog posting “directly pertained” to events at the high school, and the student’s intent in writing it was to encourage her fellow students “to read and respond.”

Last month, a U.S. District Court judge had a followup ruling in the case on issues that went beyond the initial request for an injunction. Judge Mark R. Kravitz of New Haven granted summary judgment to the school district on most issues.

“If courts and legal scholars cannot discern the contours of First Amendment protections for student Internet speech, then it is certainly unreasonable to expect school administrators ... to predict where the line between on- and off-campus speech will be drawn in this new digital era,” Judge Kravitz said in his Jan. 15 opinion.

The Citizen Media Law Project has this Web page with lots of background and links for the case.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.