ACLU of New Jersey Wins Free Speech Victory for 8th Grade Webmaster

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
April 3, 2005 12:00 am

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ACLU of New Jersey
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NEWARK, NJ — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced today that the U.S. District Court has ruled in favor of free speech for students, finding Oceanport school officials liable for violating the rights of an eighth-grade student by punishing him for creating a website on his home computer that included student comments criticizing the school.

“My parents and I are happy that the court did the right thing and upheld my free speech rights,” said Ryan Dwyer, now in the tenth grade. “But it’s a shame that in our free country students like me can be punished just because administrators don’t like what we have to say or that we have a place to say it.”

Ryan Dwyer created a website in April 2003 that contained criticisms of his school, Maple Place. He created and maintained the website on his own time from his home computer. The site contained a “Guest Book” in which visitors to the site could register comments about the site or about the school. Ryan voluntarily included a statement on the Guest Book web page that no posting should contain profanity or threats. Nevertheless, after school officials discovered the site, they suspended Ryan for a week, banned him from playing on the baseball team for a month, and did not allow him to go on the eighth-grade class trip. They also would not permit him to take Honors English and Honors Algebra placement tests that were being administered in another school district during his suspension, and did not announce his award for a high SAT score when similar awards were announced.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU of New Jersey asserted that the school district’s actions violated Ryan’s right to free speech and expression as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and by Article I, Paragraphs 1 and 6 of the New Jersey Constitution.

“The school district has never – to this day – explained to us what rule or policy our son violated,” said Kevin Dwyer, Ryan’s father. The school officials did identify particular statements written in the Guest Book by other students that they found offensive. However, despite the fact that Ryan himself made no offensive or threatening remarks and repeatedly warned others from so doing, he received far greater punishment than the students who wrote the offensive remarks.

“Our constitution and laws protect webmasters from being held liable for statements made on their sites over which they maintain no editorial control,” explained ACLU of New Jersey cooperating attorney Grayson Barber, who litigated the case. “Our schools should encourage debate and political engagement rather than punishing students who provide a forum for free expression.”

The court noted that “the comments made by other individuals in the Guestbook are not attributable to Ryan as creator of the website” and that the school district presented no evidence that Ryan’s own comments were either threatening or created a substantial disruption of the operation of the school.

Nationwide, the ACLU has successfully represented numerous students who received punishment for materials they posted on the web on their own time, from home.

The lawsuit is captioned Dwyer v. Oceanport School District, et al. The decision was rendered by United States District Judge Stanley R. Chesler in Trenton, New Jersey. The court’s ruling is online at: /node/35073.

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