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Free speech in school blurred by Internet

| Saturday, April 7, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Students have been expressing their frustrations with teachers - verbally and on bathroom walls - since the days when school violence amounted to dipping someone's ponytail in the ink pot.

But when Zachariah Paul, a student at Franklin Regional High School, made fun of his gym teacher's weight in an e-mail to a friend in May 1999, the act earned him 10 days' suspension from school.

The resulting lawsuit filed by Paul's mother against the Franklin Regional School District was settled March 22. U.S. District Court Judge Donald E. Ziegler ruled that the school district had overstepped its bounds in suspending Paul.

School districts are entering new legal territory as more students are expressing themselves by e-mail and Web site postings, said Terry Foriska, assistant superintendent of Gateway School District.

While school districts urge the community to be aware of students' comments and demeanor for potential threats of school violence, others worry that such monitoring will lead administrators to infringe on students' off-campus rights and privacy.

Ziegler ruled that administrators could not use the authority of the school district to punish Paul for expressions made away from school grounds.

'Disliking or being upset by the content of a student's speech is not acceptable justification for limiting student speech,' the judge's decision said.

The decision left unanswered the question whether there are other circumstances under which student speech could be limited.

Paul's e-mails were written at home on his computer and received by his friends at their homes. He said the language was not threatening and did not impede learning.

'I'm known as a writer,' Paul said this week from Los Angeles, where he is a freshman in college. His 'Bob Bozzuto Top Ten List' contained vulgarities that would make it inappropriate for the 'Late Show' with David Letterman. Bozzuto is now the athletic director at the North Allegheny School District.

Paul said his e-mail ended up in the teachers' lounge the day after he sent it, but he didn't know who placed it there.

Bozzuto declined to comment on the case before reading the judge's decision.

Paul said he was only 'writing satire' when, sitting at home, he composed the top 10 list about Bozzuto. Paul said the school district invaded his privacy in ordering the suspension.

'The school district was following me home,' he said.

Before Paul's mother, JoAnne Killion, received assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, she spent nearly $10,000 defending her son's rights. Killion said her fight was about principle, not about a blind belief in the infallibility of her son.

'I'm not saying that my son is not rude, but he has a right to say what is on his mind,' Killion said. 'I'd rather see him vent his frustration this way than become violent,' she said.

'That's a parent's decision, not a school's.'

While Ziegler's ruling defends a student's free speech, what happens when Internet communications, which can be forwarded quickly and effortlessly to countless recipients, have a disruptive effect on the educational environment•

Superintendents and administrators throughout the area are left wondering where to draw the line.

'It's a gray area in the First Amendment law,' Foriska said.

Foriska said although he thought speech outside a school would be protected by the First Amendment, the legal dust has not settled.

John Esaias, superintendent of the North Hills School District, said some e-mails and Web postings could create a disruption that would make education impossible.

'It is my understanding that when (the remarks) are directly related to the school, students could be punished for their statements,' he said.

Esaias said the approach was only fair to teachers who work hard to maintain discipline in the classroom. Typically, the judicial test for limiting student speech is whether the language is disruptive, he said.

Kim Watterson, an attorney appointed by the ACLU, said the result of punishing students for out-of-school speech would be to 'chill free expression.' She is preparing for a hearing in federal court in a similar case involving a Keystone Oaks student.

Jack Flaherty is prohibited from participating on the Keystone Oaks volleyball team or attending school sporting events. He said it is because of his postings to an electronic bulletin board done from home.

However, Keystone Oaks Superintendent Carl DeJulio said Flaherty violated the school's Internet use policy by posting a message on an electronic bulletin board from a school computer.

A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments in the Flaherty case on Friday.

DeJulio said regulating the home Internet usage of students is difficult.

'It depends on who you ask,' he said. 'The ACLU will tell you that when youngsters (post to Web sites) from home, they are out of the domain of the discipline of the school.

'But is that fair to teachers?'

DeJulio said that if there is a 'noticeable connection between what an individual is doing at home and at school, schools ought to have some jurisdiction.'

This viewpoint infuriates the ACLU.

'Both Zach's and Jack's cases involve the concept of the disciplinary authority of the school district used against students for out-of-school speech,' said Witold 'Vic' Walczak, executive director of the ACLU in Pittsburgh.

'(Administrators) can't use the authority of the school to punish kids for what they do after school.'

To limit speech, administrators would have to prove that it contained threats or would be disruptive to the functioning of a school, Walczak said.

'The government cannot otherwise dictate how a student feels about a school, and they cannot use force to make you feel good about a school,' Walczak said.

But limitations on speech in educational environments are nothing new. School districts have had a wide range of policies that set limits on what is acceptable expression.

The ACLU lost a 1986 Supreme Court case, Bethel School District v. Fraser, when the court upheld the discipline of a student at the Washington school for making lewd speech to a student assembly.

The court noted that 'the undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial issues in schools must be balanced against the countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.'

Federally mandated anti-harassment rules are another example. Districts are required to have a code of conduct in place to prevent forms of harassment that might hinder learning.

However, out-of-school speech must be judged with a different standard, Foriska said.

He said that by his interpretation, a student's speech away from school is protected under the First Amendment.

Joe Marrone, director of administrative services with the Quaker Valley School District, said the Internet is blurring the distinction between on- and off-campus speech.

A student can put up a Web site from home that would be accessible from within a school's computer lab, he said.

'Would those expressions then be considered in-school speech or out-of-school speech?' he asked.

Quaker Valley, one of three districts in the state to be named a 'digital district,' will receive nearly $4 million from the state for technology improvements. The money will be used to connect students' homes to school Web servers with wireless technology, offer Web-based learning and raise the general level of technical knowledge among students.

Marrone said the grant might put Quaker Valley in the front lines of resolving free speech issues in schools.

Still, with all the new technology, it appears students' behavior will remain the same.

'The kind of thing, what Zach did, has been going on as long as there have been schools, and all the Internet has done is give these people a megaphone,' Walczak said.

Mark Render, a teacher of American government at Bethel Park High School, said teachers would do well to accept the challenge.

'The students have every right to disagree with the administration if they can stay calm and polite,' Render said. 'We teach them that they have every right to do that.'

By talking through free speech issues and differences of opinion, a controversial matter can become an opportunity for learning, Render said.

A case in point, Render said, was the recent punishment of a student in Bethel Park for not standing during the morning pledge of allegiance. Render said he disagreed with the punishment other teachers meted out and instead used the opportunity to teach students about their rights.

David Faulk can be reached at dfaulk@tribweb.com or (412) 380-5615.

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