Tuesday, November 08, 2005

An Expensive Civics Lesson

A New Jersey School District has gotten a $117,500 lesson in how the First Amendment to the United States Constitution applies to students off campus:
A New Jersey school district will pay $117,500 to a student who was punished for creating a website that included critical statements about his middle school.

The settlement of the lawsuit brought nearly two years ago follows a decision by a federal judge ruling that Oceanport school administrators violated Ryan Dwyer's free speech rights.

The settlement was announced Sunday by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

"While my parents and I are happy the case is resolved, most importantly, I'm hopeful this will help ensure that free speech rights of students aren't trampled on again in the future," said Dwyer, who is now in 11th grade.

Dwyer created the website containing criticism of Maple Place School in April 2003, on his own time from his home computer. Comments posted on the site's "guest book" section angered school officials, who suspended Dwyer for a week, benched him from playing on the baseball team for a month, and barred him from going on his class trip, among other discipline. The district's lawsuit said anti-Semitic remarks were posted on the site, which Dwyer denied writing.

"The school district has never — to this day — explained to us what rule or policy our son violated," said Kevin Dwyer, Ryan's father.

The school district issued a prepared statement that said it solicited advice and guidance from legal advisers and law enforcement officers and acted "on its belief that it was protecting all of the children and the staff in the district."

"In the settlement agreement, the Board of Education expressed its regret for the entire incident that caused a great deal of concern to the Board of Education, its present and former members, as well as the Dwyers," the statement read.

Grayson Barber, who handled the case on behalf of the ACLU, said the school presented no evidence that Dwyer's comments were threatening or disruptive of school activities.

"Our schools should encourage debate and political engagement rather than punishing students who provide a forum for free expression," Barber said.
Long-time readers will know that I don't care much at all for the American Civil Liberties Union, but in this case the school district should have known better.

Student speech, when it is done off-campus is as fully protected by the Bill of Rights as any other citizen's.

I thoroughly dislike what the kid did, but the First Amendment isn't there to protect the speech that we love, but to protect the speech that we hate.
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