Settlement Ends Attempt To Punish Student for Web Site in Washington State

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
April 7, 2000 12:00 am

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KENT, WA — A settlement between student Nick Emmett and Kent School District has ended the district’s attempt to punish the student because of a Web site created on his home computer. Under terms of the settlement negotiated by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State, the suburban Seattle district will not pursue disciplinary action against Emmett over the Web site and will pay his attorney fees.

The agreement comes after one of the first court rulings on student free speech in cyberspace. In February, Chief Judge John Coughenour of the U.S. District Court in Seattle issued a Temporary Restraining Order preventing Kentlake High School administrators from suspending Emmett.

“The court recognized that school officials do not have authority to punish students for exercising their freedom of speech outside of school. School administrators need to learn that they can’t discipline students who create satires on the Internet,” said Aaron Caplan, ACLU Staff Attorney who represented the student.

Emmett is a college-bound senior and a co-captain of the Kentlake High School basketball team. On the weekend of February 12 and 13, Nick and a friend posted their own site on the Internet, using the Emmett family computer and AOL account. Nick’s father helped set up the graphics. Titled the “Unofficial Kentlake High Home Page,” the site was intended as a light-hearted vehicle to promote discussion among the King County school’s students. Nick posted compliments to the school’s administration, and the home page included the disclaimer, “This website is meant for entertainment purposes only.”

At a friend’s suggestion, Emmett added a fake obituary to the friend’s memory; the idea came, in part, from a creative writing class in which students had been assigned to write mock obituaries. This and another obituary written in jest (with the student’s permission) proved so popular that other students began posting requests for parody death notices about themselves to be written. As a humorous touch, a feature was added to the Web site enabling people to vote for the next fake obituary. At school Emmett received praise for the Web site from students and teachers alike.

After a misleading television news report aired which suggested that the site had a “hit list,” Emmett and his co-creator closed the site. Two days later, Kentlake officials imposed a five-day suspension, causing him to miss a basketball playoff game. He and his parents enlisted the ACLU’s help to contest the suspension in federal court.

“I went to court to fight for my rights because I don’t think administrators should be able to make unfair punishments. I care about school and want to go to class,” Emmett said.

On February 23, Judge Coughenour stopped the school district from enforcing the suspension.

In his ruling, Judge Coughenour said: “Although the intended audience was undoubtedly connected to Kentlake High School, the speech was entirely outside of the school’s supervision or control.” Judge Coughenour cited the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling in a 1988 ACLU-WA case (Burch v. Barker), which held that student distribution of non-school-sponsored material cannot be prohibited “on the basis of undifferentiated fears of possible disturbances or embarrassment to school officials.”

The judge noted that the school district presented “no evidence that the mock obituaries and voting were intended to threaten anyone, did actually threaten anyone, or manifested any violent tendencies whatsover.”

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