The Lake Washington School Board in Redmond, WA has decided not to impose restitution or community service on three Eastlake High School students who created a Web site on which someone else posted a death threat last fall. The Board’s decision reverses the actions of Eastlake administrators and a district hearing examiner, who had recommended imposition of the sanctions. The action was announced in a letter from the school board received by the students’ parents today.
"The ACLU is pleased that the school district is no longer seeking to punish the students. We believe that it is unfair for school officials to discipline students because of statements posted by others on their Web site. It is like going after the phone company for a threat made over the telephone," said Julya Hampton, Legal Program Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. The ACLU-WA provided legal assistance to the students and parents in contesting the discipline.
In the fall of 1999, the students established a Web site, including a chat room and bulletin board, as a way for other students at Eastlake High School in Redmond to talk about matters of interest to young people. Created on the students’ own time from home computers, the "Eaztlake Phantom" Web site developed into a lively forum for the discussion of issues ranging from eating disorders to homophobia. Some users also posted vulgar comments, though the Web masters discouraged this.
On Nov. 1 the school was closed for a day after someone posted a death threat in the "Phantom’s" chat room. The Web masters contacted school officials to offer their help in identifying the threat’s author (who turned out to be a college student in Arizona) and voluntarily closed the chat room and bulletin board. School officials responded by imposing five-day suspensions on the three students and by seeking restitution of $500 each (or equivalent hours of community service) to cover a portion of the costs of security measures taken in the wake of the threat.
The students and their parents contacted the ACLU-WA, which provided legal representation as they contested the restitution before a district hearing examiner (who ruled against the students) and in a January appeal to the Lake Washington School Board. "School officials are trying to scapegoat the Web site hosts for offensive statements and a threat made by other people. The school does not have the authority to impose discipline on students for speech outside of school and certainly not for providing a forum for free speech by others," said ACLU-WA Staff Counsel Aaron Caplan, who is representing the students.
As a new generation of Web-wise youth takes freedom of expression into cyberspace, the ACLU is working to bring protections for student free speech to the Internet. In 1995, in a much-publicized case, the ACLU-WA won an out-of-court settlement for Bellevue student Paul Kim after his principal disciplined him for creating a parody of his high school from a home computer. In an ACLU case in Missouri in 1998, a federal district court found that a school district had violated a student’s free speech rights when it suspended him for posting a personal Web page critical of his school. Also pending is an ACLU-WA lawsuit on behalf of a Thurston County high school student who was suspended for a month in 1999 for creating on his home computer a Web site lampooning his school’s vice-principal.