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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Student free-speech decision

It may not be the last decision in a federal court on this case (Avery Doninger's lawyer said it may need to go to the Supreme Court). It was a mixed decision, reflecting how complicated student free-speech cases in the digital age are. In Doninger's case against Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Conn., the Student Press Law Center reports, "US District Court Judge Mark Kravitz decided [Mills High School principal] Niehoff and Superintendent Paula Schwartz were entitled to qualified immunity, which protects 'public officials from lawsuits for damages, unless their actions violate clearly established rights'," the judge said in the ruling. Doninger, he said, hadn't clearly established her First Amendment right "to criticize her principal in an off-campus blog that used coarse language," the report added. Judge Kravitz cited two somewhat conflicting cases in his opinion: "Bethel School District v. Fraser, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a student's lewd and vulgar speech was not protected on-campus, and Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which recognizes First Amendment protection for student speech on-campus as long as it does not substantially disrupt school, demonstrating a confusion among courts about which standard to apply to Internet student-speech cases," according to the Student Press Law Center. According to the Associated Press, the judge did let stand Doninger's claim that her right to free speech was "chilled" when the school "prohibited students from wearing T-shirts that read 'Team Avery' to a student council election assembly. That matter can proceed to trial."

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