N.J. school rapped for punishing student over Web site

By The Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. — An eighth-grader who was suspended for a week after officials learned that he had created a Web site where he wrote about hating his middle school should not have been disciplined, a judge has ruled.

Ryan Dwyer, now 16 and a high school sophomore, “did not himself publish any material which constituted a true threat,” U.S. District Judge Stanley R. Chesler wrote in his decision issued late last week.

Therefore, Ryan could not be disciplined on that basis without violating the First Amendment right to free speech, the judge wrote. Ryan and his parents had filed a federal lawsuit filed in December 2003 in U.S. District Court in Trenton.

In his ruling, Chesler wrote that officials “presented no evidence that the material Ryan put on his Web site was intended to threaten anyone, did actually threaten anyone, or manifested any violent tendencies whatsoever.”

Ryan, who now attends Shore Regional High School, said yesterday that he was pleased that the judge had ruled in his favor.

“I was really surprised that the school administrators actually thought they could punish me for just saying a couple of things about them,” he said.

Maple Place School Principal John K. Amato yesterday said he had not yet reviewed the ruling and declined to comment further. Other Oceanport school district officials could not be reached for comment.

Launched in April 2003, the Web 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.”

Ryan urged students to make stickers that said “I hate Maple Place” and also wrote, “Don’t even try to make me take my Web site down because it is illegal to do so!”

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 its teachers, but others, the lawsuit conceded, “were arguably crude, sophomoric and offensive.” Ryan never made threats or profanity, it said.

Chesler wrote that the defendants “could only have lawfully disciplined Ryan for statements and other content created and provided by him, and not for any comments made by other individuals in his guest book.”

The lawsuit sought unspecified monetary compensation and a ruling that the defendants violated Ryan’s free-speech and due- process rights. The March 31 ruling did not decide on any damages, said Grayson Barber, a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

While Chesler ruled that the family could not seek monetary damages from the school principal or the superintendent because of qualified immunity, the Dwyers can seek damages from the school district and the Board of Education, Barber said.

Despite taking the Web site down at the district’s request, Ryan was suspended for a week, barred from the Maple Place Middle School baseball team for a month and banned from the eighth grade class trip to Philadelphia.

“When I was in eighth grade, it kind of just seemed like I couldn’t do anything about it,” Ryan said. “Now I realize that I missed out on a lot of things, and it feels good that they got proved wrong about what they did.”