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Court Backs Student on Facebook Page Criticizing Teacher

In the latest in a flurry of recent rulings about student speech on social-networking sites, a federal district court has ruled that a lawsuit challenging the discipline of a student for a Facebook page critical of a teacher may proceed.

The case involves Katherine Evans, who was a senior at Pembrook Pines Charter High School in Florida in 2007 when she created a group on Facebook called, "Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I've ever met."

"To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, or simply knowing her and her insane antics: Here is the place to express your feelings of hatred," Evans wrote on the page, which she created on her home computer.

Peter Bayer, the principal of Pembroke Pines High, suspended Evans for three days and removed her from her Advanced Placement classes for violating the school's rules against "cyberbullying" and "harassment" of a staff member, according to court documents.

Evans sued the principal in his individual capacity, alleging that her First Amendment free speech and 14th Amendment due process rights were violated.

In a Feb. 12 ruling in Bayer v. Evans, U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry L. Garber of Miami declined Evans's request for an injunction barring the principal from keeping the student's discipline in school records. But the judge denied qualified immunity for Bayer, holding that Evans's speech was protected under the First Amendment and that the principal should have known he was violating a clearly established right by disciplining Evans.

"Evans's speech falls under the wide umbrella of protected speech," Judge Garber said. "It was an opinion of a student about a teacher, that was published off-campus, did not cause any disruption on-campus, and was not lewd, vulgar, threatening, or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior."

The judge reviewed a host of relatively recent court decisions involving the discipline of students over Internet speech critical of teachers or administrators, including separate decisions earlier this month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, which I blogged about here.

The judge acknowledged that "confusion certainly exists as to a number of questions" surrounding student speech on the Internet, but "this confusion cannot save Bayer when his actions do not even comport with the requirements for the regulation of on-campus speech."

There must be an indication that the speech at issue disrupted the work and discipline of the school, or will disrupt school in the future, for the discipline to be upheld, the judge said, and there was no indication in the record before him that Evans' Facebook group critical of a teacher disrupted school.

(Hat Tip to How Appealing for the case and the link to the opinion.)

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