Scrawling epithets into a bathroom stall in high school still might get kids a good old-fashioned suspension, but doing it on Facebook is protected speech, according to a new ruling. A judge in Florida recently cleared the way for a former high school student to sue her school principal after she was suspended for a making a Facebook group mocking a teacher.
Katherine Evans, now 19, started the “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!” group on Facebook back in 2007, prompting a three-day suspension from school principal Peter Bayer. Although she served it out, Evans wants to have the suspension removed from her disciplinary record and receive a “nominal fee” for the violation of her First Amendment rights.
Backed by lawyers from the Florida branch of the ACLU, Evans won her first victory this week when Judge Barry Garber ruled that she could proceed with the case because her Facebook group was protected by the First Amendment. “Evans’ speech falls under the wide umbrella of protected speech,” Garber wrote in his opinion. “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.”
Evans still has a long way to go before she can collect compensation – and Garber dismissed the request to wipe her suspension from school records – but the case could set new precedents for free speech in and out of the classroom.
“These days, things are done on the Internet. Socialization is done on the Internet,” said ACLU lawyer Matthew D. Bavaro. “So the law needs to adapt and we need precedent on how courts are going to apply First Amendment principles for off-campus speech.”