ACLU of Arkansas Sues School District on Behalf of Student Expelled for Creating Off-Campus Web Site

Affiliate: ACLU of Arkansas
June 22, 2000 12:00 am

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LITTLE ROCK — The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed a lawsuit in federal court today on behalf of the parents of 15-year-old Justin Redman, who was expelled from Valley View Junior High School in Jonesboro for creating a Web site from his home that parodied the official school Web site and lampooned some school administrators, teachers and students.

As a result, Justin — who has no history of violence or discipline problems — failed the 9th grade because of missed exams, lost all school computer privileges for 18 months, and will not be allowed to return to school in the fall unless he undergoes psychological counseling.

“The school’s action is equivalent to expelling a child for disparaging the principal at the local mall,” said ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar. “While the schools have every right to appropriately discipline children for their behavior in school, they may not reach out beyond the school walls to monitor and punish every behavior they dislike. That kind of discipline is the privilege and the province of parents.”

In its lawsuit, the ACLU claims that the school violated Justin’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment when it punished him for the content of his personal Web site.

School officials suspended Justin — who has had no history of school discipline problems apart from a one-day in-school suspension — for “inappropriate” use of the Internet and for use of “abusive, vulgar, obscene, and sexually explicit material.” Later, the school added a charge of causing “disturbance in the school and disrupt[ing] the learning environment.”

Patricia and Marty Redman, Justin’s parents, said they wanted the ACLU’s assistance because they felt the school unfairly and harshly disciplined him for behavior that took place in the home.

“Although we as parents do not condone what Justin did,” said the Redmans in a joint statement, “we also do not feel the school has the right to control or discipline him for what he does off school grounds. That job belongs to us.”

At a school board hearing June 13th to appeal the suspension and punishment, an ACLU cooperating attorney advised officials that similar cases around the country involving student Web sites had been resolved in favor of students’ free speech rights.

The ACLU of Arkansas is asking the court to suspend the school’s punishment in the belief that Justin will suffer irreparable harm. If the school’s punishment is upheld, the ACLU said, he will fail the 9th grade and have to repeat it in 2000, not be able to return to school for the 10th grade until September 2001, be forced to have psychological counseling, and have a record that could be seriously detrimental to any college plans.

The ACLU is asking the court to allow Justin to be able to make up his work over the summer, to return to school for the 10th grade with no restrictions, and to have the incident removed from his record.

In a nearly identical case in Washington state, a school district recently settled a case brought by the ACLU on behalf of a student who was suspended after he created an “unofficial” home page for his high school on his home computer.

The judge in the case blocked the school’s suspension, citing a federal court ruling 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.”

But despite the fact that a lawsuit would only be costly and time-consuming and ultimately detrimental to the students in the district, Valley View school board members were intractable about modifying Justin’s punishment.

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