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Teen Webmaster sues after N.J. district punishes him for site

By The Associated Press
12.21.03

NEWARK, N.J. — When Ryan Dwyer created a Web site offering critical views of his middle school, he included this phrase: "This page protected by the U.S. Constitution."

Now Ryan is suing to see if that was really true.

Despite taking down the site at the request of the Oceanport district, he was suspended for a week, barred from the Maple Place Middle School baseball team for a month and banned from the class trip to Philadelphia.

Ryan and his parents, in a federal lawsuit filed Dec. 18 in U.S. District Court in Trenton, claim the sanctions imposed by the district and its officials violated the Monmouth County boy's free-speech and due-process rights.

Oceanport School Superintendent James DiGiovanna referred a request for comment to the district's attorney, Anthony P. Sciarrillo, who said Ryan violated the school's disciplinary code. "I don't believe his rights were violated," he said.

Calls to Maple Place Principal John K. Amato and school board members, who were also sued, were not returned.

Ryan said the school handbook has no mention of Web sites, and he was shocked that he was punished.

"I created the Web site because I felt I had no voice at Maple Place," Ryan said at a Newark news conference with his parents and their lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union. "You need your First Amendment rights to get change."

Ryan has turned 15 since the incident, and now is a freshman taking honors courses at Shore Regional High School in West Long Branch.

Edward Barocas, legal director for the state ACLU chapter, said the law protects Webmasters from being held liable for statements made on sites over which they have no editorial control.

Chapter Executive Director Deborah Jacobs said there is an "epidemic" of similar cases involving student Web sites around the nation, citing ACLU challenges in Cleveland; Little Rock, Ark.; Kent, Wash.; San Francisco; Seattle; and St. Louis.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary compensation and a ruling that the defendants violated Ryan's constitutional rights.

It claims that Ryan created the site, www.mapleplace.20m.com, at home, and never used school facilities to edit or access it.

The district has never identified what rule or law Ryan violated, according to the lawsuit.

Launched on April 1, when Ryan was in eighth grade, the site greeted users with the legend, "Welcome to the Anti-Maple Place — Your Friendly Environment," and said: "This page is dedicated to showing students why their school isn't what it's cracked up to be. You may be shocked at what you find on this site," the lawsuit said.

Users who wished to leave comments were instructed not to use profanity and "no threats to any teacher or person EVER."

Some visitor comments criticized the school and teachers, but others, the lawsuit conceded, "were arguably crude, sophomoric and offensive." Ryan never made threats or used profanity, it said.

DiGiovanna contacted Ryan's mother, Rosanne Dwyer, on April 7 that Ryan was suspected of creating a site that "might have criminal content." Later that day, Ryan and his father, Kevin Dwyer, met with the superintendent and the principal.

DiGiovanna, the superintendent, said the principal was angry because a picture on the site made Amato "look black," the lawsuit said. The superintendent also said there were anti-Semitic remarks posted, which Ryan denied making, the lawsuit said.

Amato asked for the site to be taken down, and Ryan and his father agreed and did so after leaving the meeting. Later that day, Rosanne Dwyer was told by DiGiovanna that the district decided to suspend Ryan for a week, bar him from sports for a month and ban him from the trip, the lawsuit said.

Efforts to have the punishment delayed pending an appeal to the school board were rejected, and the board later affirmed the discipline.

A legal expert not involved in the case, Perry Dean, said, "This seems like a fairly clear case of a free-speech violation."

"For the school to reach out to someone's out-of-school expressive conduct doesn't seem at all justifiable," said Dean, a professor at Rutgers-Camden School of Law.

"Students, to some extent, have fewer expressive rights than adults in a school context," he said. However, "even in the school context, there's been students asserting rights to publish critical articles in school papers."


Update
N.J. school rapped for punishing student over Web site
Federal judge says eighth-grader's published material didn't constitute true threat, therefore, school couldn't discipline him without violating free speech. 04.04.05

Related

Oregon teen expelled over off-color Web site sues school district

Legal experts say such cases illustrate the tension between free speech, school safety. 01.25.03

School violated ex-volleyball player's free-speech rights, federal judge rules
Federal judge's decision effectively ends legal fight in Pennsylvania that began when Jack Flaherty posted message critical of teacher on Web site. 02.28.03

Georgia students fight suspensions for online comments
High school seniors file federal lawsuit after being punished for criticisms of teacher posted on off-campus Web site. 10.29.03

ACLU: Ohio teen wrongly expelled for exercising free speech
Group's litigation coordinator says school district doesn't have authority to punish Thomas Siefert for personal Web site. 05.09.04

Court sides with teens punished for Web sites' content
Federal judge finds Arkansas district violated students' First Amendment rights, teens' off-campus Internet postings did not disrupt class. 02.27.05

Wis. student arrested, accused of defaming administrator
School officials say senior altered sexually suggestive liquor ad to include picture of athletic director, pinned it to bulletin board. 05.17.06

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