PA High School Pays $60,000 to Student Who Was Punished for Private Internet Message

November 18, 2002 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH – A local school district has agreed to pay $60,000 in partial settlement of lawsuit brought by a former student who was kicked off the volleyball team because he posted an Internet message criticizing an art teacher, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania announced today.

“The courts have thus far been unanimous in holding that non-threatening Internet speech posted by students from home, that they do not physically bring onto school property, is constitutionally protected and school officials cannot punish students simply because they may be offended,” said Witold Walczak, Legal Director for the ACLU’s Pittsburgh chapter, which represented the student along with a local law firm.

The settlement is the result of a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of Jack Flaherty, who in March 2001 posted a message from his home computer on an Internet bulletin board devoted to Western Pennsylvania High School volleyball. The message said an opposing player’s mother, who is a district art teacher, was “bad.” Upon learning of the message, Keystone Oaks School District officials kicked Flaherty off the volleyball team, prohibited him from attending any after-school events, and forbade him to use school computers.

While pleased with the settlement, Flaherty noted that it couldn’t fully replace what he lost. “Even though the money will be helpful for my college education, it will never replace the competition and camaraderie that I lost my senior year,” said Flaherty. “I really hope that in the future Keystone Oaks will not punish students who exercise their constitutional rights to criticize the school.”

When the ACLU first filed the lawsuit, Judge Donetta Ambrose immediately ordered the school to reinstate Flaherty’s computer privileges. After further review, she ordered the school to reinstate his volleyball and after-school privileges as well. In retaliation, school officials cancelled the rest of the volleyball season. The ACLU asked the court to hold Keystone Oaks officials in contempt for that action, but the judge declined to do so.

While Flaherty has graduated and is now a sophomore at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, his parents, Jack Sr. and Carol Flaherty, have continued the lawsuit because they are afraid of similar problems for their three younger children, all of whom remain in the school district.

“We believe that these issues are important and that students should not be punished for exercising free speech rights, especially in the family home,” said Flaherty’s parents. “We are continuing this lawsuit because we want the judge to tell the school clearly that they do not have the authority to tell students what they can and can’t say in their own homes. That’s our job as parents.”

Kim Watterson, a lawyer with the law firm Pepper Hamilton, which handled the case without charge for the ACLU, said that if teachers don’t like what students say about them on the Internet, their remedy is to alert the parents and let them deal with it as they see fit, not to punish the student.

“Although the courts have given school officials broad authority to regulate and punish students’ expression while they are in school, teachers and administrators need to recognize that the First Amendment limits their authority to play parent when the students are home,” Watterson said.

The case will continue so that Judge Ambrose can decide whether the school district’s student-conduct rules violate students’ free speech rights. The case is Flaherty v. Keystone Oaks School District, CA-01-0586 . It has been written about widely across the country and was featured on “Between the Lines,” an ESPN program that discusses topical sports issues.

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