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2nd Circuit: School can punish teen for online criticism

By The Associated Press

Editor’s note: The Associated Press reported that Principal Karissa Niehoff was disciplined over accusations that she breached Avery Doninger’s privacy. In an e-mail response to a Wisconsin man criticizing her discipline of Doninger, Niehoff disclosed information about the student. In early June, Niefhoff was suspended without pay for two days and ordered to attend workshops or training sessions on federal student-privacy law.

NEW YORK — A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that a high school was within its rights to punish a student for writing critical comments about school administrators on the Internet.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, Conn., has a responsibility like any school to teach students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.

"Vulgar or offensive speech — speech that an adult making a political point might have a constitutional right to employ — may legitimately give rise to disciplinary action by a school," the unanimous three-judge panel ruled in Doninger v. Niehoff.

Avery Doninger was disciplined after she used derogatory language to describe the administrators in a blog entry she made outside of school in April 2007.

Doninger's mother filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming her daughter's free-speech rights had been compromised. A federal judge ruled that the school acted appropriately in disqualifying her from running for senior class secretary.

The 2nd Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, finding there was no Supreme Court precedent to rely on in a case in which the expression does not occur on school grounds or at a school-sponsored event.

"We have determined, however, that a student may be disciplined for expressive conduct, even conduct occurring off school grounds, when this conduct 'would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment,' or at least when it was similarly foreseeable that the off-campus expression might also reach campus," the appeals court wrote.

In her posting, Doninger encouraged others to contact the administration, something the appeals court said "was not only plainly offensive, but also potentially disruptive" of efforts to resolve a controversy at the school that prompted Avery to write the blog.

Doninger's attorney, Jon L. Schoenhorn, did not return a telephone message for comment for this story.

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