ACLU of New Jersey Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against School District for Retaliation Against Eighth Grade Webmaster

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
December 18, 2003 12:00 am

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NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today filed a lawsuit against school officials in the town of Oceanport who punished an 8th grade student for creating a website from his home computer that included student comments criticizing the school.

“School officials must learn that, like adults, students have the right to express their views and to provide a forum for other students to do the same, even if those views are critical of school officials,” said Grayson Barber, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey and lead counsel in the case.

Ryan Dwyer, now in 9th grade, created a website in April 2003 that contained criticisms of his school, Maple Place. He created and maintained the website on his own time from his home computer. The site contained a “Guest Book” in which visitors to the site could register comments about the site or about the school. Ryan voluntarily included a statement on the Guest Book web page that no posting should contain profanity or threats.

Nevertheless, after school officials discovered the site, they suspended Ryan for a week, banned him from playing on the baseball team for a month, and did not allow him to go on the 8th grade class trip. They also would not permit him to take Honors English and Honors Algebra placement tests that were being administered in another school district during his suspension, and did not announce his award for a high SAT score when similar awards were announced.

In legal papers, the ACLU said that the school district’s actions violated Ryan’s right to free speech and expression as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution.

According to the complaint, school officials have never explained to Ryan or his parents what particular rule or policy Ryan violated. The school officials did identify particular statements written in the Guest Book by other students that they found offensive. However, despite the fact that Ryan never made offensive or threatening remarks and repeatedly warned others not to do so, he received far greater punishment than the students who wrote the offensive remarks.

“Our Constitution and laws protect webmasters from being held liable for statements made on their sites over which they maintain no editorial control,” explained Ed Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “Our schools should encourage debate and political engagement rather than punishing students who provide a forum for free expression.”

Nationwide, the ACLU has successfully represented numerous students whose schools punished them for materials they posted on the web on their own time, from home.

The case is Dwyer v. Oceanport School District, filed today in United States District Court in Trenton, New Jersey.

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