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Discipline or Thought Police? 

Web site incident raises school free speech issues

If you followed recent news accounts of the student who got into trouble at school because of the content of his Web site, you got a dose of civics class chatter along the lines of, "You kids better be careful what you put on your site or you might make somebody mad and the principal could pop you." Two weeks later, what you still haven't seen is much discussion of the student's right to free speech outside of school.

Here's what happened: Butler High student Dimitri Arethas found a photo of the school's assistant principal Calvin Easter on another Web site, thought it was funny, and posted it on his page in the myspace.com site. The photo was an altered image of Easter, who is African American, represented as Robocop. Local media reported that the image featured a racially offensive "thought bubble" and, according to the Charlotte Observer account, contained a racial slur. Arethas' parents, however, say it merely depicted Easter as saying he was out to get white students.

We attempted to get clarification on the contents of the image from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, but the school system's attorney Michele Morris said CMS employees are barred from talking about specific disciplinary cases due to student confidentiality rules.

Whatever was included in the image, other students got wind of the photo, printed it and brought it to Principal Joel Ritchie's attention. The principal said he considered that several students' complaints constituted enough of a disruption to warrant taking action. When he confronted Arethas about the photo, the student apologized and took the image off his site. Later, Ritchie suspended Arethas for 10 days. The principal said he was basing his decision on a CMS rule against "any inappropriate information, relating in any way to school issues or school personnel, distributed from home or school computers."

Arethas' family felt the school had overstepped its bounds and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. After the family told Ritchie they had talked to the ACLU, the principal cut Arethas' suspension from 10 days to two days. Due to aforementioned confidentiality rules, it is uncertain whether the ACLU's involvement factored in to the decision to cut Arethas' suspension. Either way, Ritchie's decision looks like a prudent one, at least according to several experts in the fields of communication law, First Amendment rights and student rights.

Mark Goodman, head of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC, said CMS' rule against "any inappropriate information, relating in any way to school issues or school personnel" is "patently unconstitutional, maybe the most unconstitutional thing I've seen this year, and I can't imagine any court that would uphold it."

That's also the opinion of Tom Eveslage, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Temple University. The regulation, said Eveslage, "seems to me to clearly be unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, though some latitude is given to school officials. When officials are reaching beyond the boundaries of the school, however, their authority becomes much more limited."

When asked whether she thought the CMS rule in question would pass legal muster in court, CMS attorney Morris said, "Nobody has contacted us about the rule, including the ACLU, so it would not be appropriate for me to offer my own opinion about it."

Dr. Wat Hopkins, Professor of Communication Law and Journalism at Virginia Tech, and a recognized expert on free speech issues, said, "In general, schools cannot punish students for speech that occurs off school grounds unless it directly affects the school environment. That is, if a student was whipping up a frenzy, encouraging students to take some kind of action at school, that kind of thing, schools would be more likely to succeed in punishing students. If students are simply criticizing school administrators, teachers or other officials, however, using their own computers, courts generally rule that those students cannot be punished."

Goodman, of the Student Press Law Center, said, "If [Arethas] urged others to view his site at school, and the viewing caused material and substantial disruption in the school, the principal can act . . . If it all occurs out of school, the student's freedom of expression is protected. Or if the student didn't urge others at school to view the site, the school is on very weak legal ground -- they may as well try to punish a student for what he reads at home."

In this case, the image posted by Arethas wasn't viewed at the school at all, but rather on computers outside of school, as the myspace.com site is blocked on the school's computer system, according to Ritchie. The principal also told CL that he had never received complaints about Assistant Principal Easter before, and that he viewed the entire episode as "a learning process" for everyone involved.

Goodman took a wide view and put the Butler High events in a larger context. "People wonder why students are apathetic and don't know anything about their rights, but they're often shown that those rights don't apply to them," he said. "For instance, they're shown how to put out a paper in a way that's applicable to say, pre-war Iraq, but they're not given the chance to express themselves within the context of a democracy. It's hurtful to the student, and in the long run suppressing students' free speech is hurtful to the country."

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