FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
OLYMPIA, WA--A student at Timberline High School in nearby Lacey is going to court today to challenge his suspension last year for posting an Internet parody lampooning the school's assistant principal.
As a 17-year-old junior at Timberline High School in 1999, Karl Beidler created a satire on the Internet that lampooned the school's assistant principal, using his own computer at home on his own time. The posting included a disclaimer that "...everything on it has been created out of my imagination or someone I know's imagination" and that "... all pictures are parody pictures ..."
The lawsuit, brought on Beidler's behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, seeks a ruling that North Thurston School District's imposition of discipline was unlawful and also seeks unspecified damages.
"Public school administrators have no authority to punish a student for expressing his opinions outside of school and without the use of any school resources," said Julya Hampton, Legal Program Director for the ACLU of Washington. "The First Amendment protects a student from being kicked out of school just because officials don't like what the student is saying."
"Some people might be offended by the parody," she added. "But it's up to his parents, not the school district, to impose any discipline."
Last January, school authorities expelled Beidler from Timberline on an "emergency" basis because of his Internet satire. Yet district officials never offered evidence of anything remotely resembling an emergency. His parents decided to take the Web site off the Internet that night.
A few days later, on February 2, the principal informed Karl and his parents that the student was suspended for the rest of the school year, for "exceptional misconduct."
After missing a month of classes, a court denied an ACLU motion for a temporary restraining order to allow Beidler to return to Timberline and instead he was allowed to enroll in an alternative school in the District. This year he again is attending school at Timberline as a senior.
The first case of this kind also stemmed from an incident in Washington state: in 1995, the ACLU reached an out-of-court settlement with Bellevue School District on claims stemming from punitive actions taken against Newport High School student Paul Kim. Like Beidler, Kim had used his home computer on his own time to create an Internet parody relating to his school. The school principal contacted colleges to which he had applied and National Merit officials, withdrawing the school's endorsement of the student.
Under terms of that settlement, the school district recognized the right of students to engage in free speech on the Internet, issued an apology to Kim for punitive actions, and paid him $2,000 in compensation for the loss of his National Merit Scholarship.
This February, in a precedent-setting ruling on a student Web site case, Chief Judge John Coughenour of the United States District Court in Seattle issued an order preventing Kentlake High School from suspending a student Nick Emmett because of a Web site parody he had created on his home computer. In final settlement of the case, Kent School District agreed not to pursue disciplinary action against the student and paid $6,000 in attorney's fees. The state ACLU affiliate represented the student in contesting the suspension.
Other courts across the country have held that public school students have the right to produce their own publications outside of school and distribute them, both in print and in cyberspace. In December, 1998, in Beussink v. Woodland, a federal district court in Missouri barred a school district from punishing a high school student for creating a Web site at home which sharply criticized his school.
The hearing today is being held before Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee. ACLU cooperating attorney Robert Hedrick is representing the Beidlers.
The ACLU's news release on the filing of the Beidler case is online at http://archive.aclu.org/news/1999/n040799c.html.
The ACLU news release on the Beussink case is online at http://archive.aclu.org/news/n122898a.html and the news release on the Emmett case is online at http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/n040700b.html.