The Internet age continues to raise new questions about when off-campus behavior comes under the authority of public schools.
Of course, students have been subject to punishment for off-campus behavior since the mid-19th century, when the Vermont Supreme Court upheld the discipline of a boy who was overheard using disrespectful language as he passed by his schoolmaster’s house. (“Misbehavior Off Campus Raises Issues,” May 28, 2003.)
In a decision late last month, a federal appeals court ruled 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.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of Avery Doninger, a senior at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Conn., alleged that she was barred from serving as senior class secretary and from speaking at her graduation this spring because of derogatory comments she wrote about school officials on the blogging site livejournal.com. In a controversy over the scheduling of a school event, Ms. Doninger wrote that “jamfest is cancelled due to douchebags in central office,” and that readers should contact the superintendent “to piss her off more.”
In its May 29 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, unanimously ruled for school officials. “The blog posting directly pertained to events at lmhs, and Avery’s intent in writing it was specifically to encourage her fellow students to read and respond,” the appeals court said.
A lawyer representing the school administrators who were defendants in the case told the Hartford Courant the ruling was “a very, very decided victory” for school authorities.
Mitchell H. Rubinstein, an adjunct law professor at St. John’s University and New York Law School, said he found the court’s argument that the student’s speech would disrupt her high school unpersuasive.
“This demonstrates how narrow students’ First Amendment protections are,” said Mr. Rubinstein. “If this student can’t speak up against the administration, what student can?”
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week