WhoToTake.com; SchoolRumors.com; TeacherReview.com; Trojanspot.com; and SeeUinHell. com -- these are just a few of the Web sites that are pitting students against teachers and school administrators in courtroom battles over the right to free speech.
As students from middle schools to universities use the Internet to create forums for venting frustrations about teachers, schools and school administrators, the targets of the rants are reacting with suspensions, expulsions and lawsuits alleging defamation of character.
Lowering the Boom
In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Tinker v. Des Moines, in which three students from Des Moines, Iowa, were suspended from school for wearing black armbands in protest of the federal governments policy in Vietnam.
The students protested their suspension all the way up to the Supreme Court, which issued its decision in early 1969.
"In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism," wrote Justice Abe Fortas in the courts opinion. "School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are persons under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights -- which the state must respect -- just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the state. ... In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views."
Despite this apparently airtight case for free speech, school districts and administrators are lowering the boom on students who create the sites, often on their own time and using their own computers. This has spurred a host of lawsuits and court cases as students and their families fight back.
More often than not, the students and their families win.
In Washington, three cases have gone in favor of students since 1995. In California, two community college professors dropped their lawsuit against the student who created TeacherReview.com, a Web site where students posted critiques of professors. In Pennsylvania, three cases concerning students online activities landed in the courts. One went the students way; another initially went the school districts way and is being appealed; and the states Supreme Court is currently considering the third.
"Nobody likes being criticized, and some of these school administrators might be the type that would have had the same overreaction if the student had written the exact same material on a piece of paper," said Aaron Caplan, staff attorney of the ACLU of Washington, speculating on why some schools react to these sites with lawsuits.
"Then, there is a genuine fear of technology. For some people, they react worse to something that is posted on the Internet."
Caplan sees a similarity between court cases now and court cases a couple of decades ago relating to underground newspapers.
"There are a lot of cases from the late 1960s and early 70s dealing with underground newspapers," he explained. "A new technology came into being that allowed students to voice their opinions and distribute them widely. At that time, it was the fact that [copy] machines and mimeograph machines were coming out in a way that would allow students to become publishers more cheaply."
The same sorts of feelings -- fear, mistrust and the perception of losing control -- that led to a flurry of court cases over newspapers now rear again in administrators minds, he said.
"As far as where we are on the initial bell curve, unfortunately, were still kind of early in the curve," he said. "In the next three to five years, there will be a lot of these kinds of cases. Were trying to get the word out that schools are asking for trouble if they engage in this kind of censorship."