ACLU of Washington State Challenges Suspension for Student Parody

April 7, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, April 7, 1999

SEATTLE — The ACLU of Washington is suing North Thurston School District on behalf of a student who was suspended from high school for a parody he created on his home computer.

In early February school officials invoked emergency procedures to remove student Karl Beidler from Timberline High School in Lacey because the student had posted a satire on the Internet that lampooned the school’s assistant principal.

“We are stunned by the school district’s action,” said Julya Hampton, Legal Program Director for the ACLU of Washington. “Public school administrators have no authority to punish a student for expressing his opinions outside of school and without the use of any school resources.

“The First Amendment protects a student from being kicked out of school just because officials don’t like what the student is saying,” Hampton added. “I can understand why some people might be offended by the parody. But imposing any discipline is the responsibility of his parents, not the school district.”

Karl Beidler, a 17-year-old junior, created the Web site parody on January 21, 1999. It included a disclaimer that “. . . everything on it has been created out of my imagination or someone I know’s imagination” and that “. . . all pictures are parody pictures . . .” The elaborate satire included a scanned-in photo of the vice-principal in a variety of settings, including a Viagra ad and a ribald cartoon of Homer and Marge Simpson.

A week later school authorities expelled Karl from Timberline. District officials claimed their action was based on an ’emergency,’ yet no evidence has been given of anything remotely resembling an emergency. His parents decided to take the Web site off the Internet that night.

Yet on February 2 the principal informed Karl and his parents that he was suspended for the rest of the school year — more than four months — for “exceptional misconduct.”

In February, Thurston County Superior Court Judge McPhee denied a motion for a temporary restraining order to allow Karl to return to school.

The North Thurston School Board subsequently decided to allow Karl to enroll in another district school — after he had missed a month of classes — and to expunge the disciplinary action from his permanent record at the end of the school year.

The lawsuit seeks to make clear that public school officials cannot punish a student for free speech activities outside school and seeks damages for the school’s unlawful imposition of discipline. ACLU-WA staff counsel Aaron Caplan and cooperating attorney Bob Hedrick are representing the student.

In a similar incident, the ACLU-WA in 1995 reached an out-of-court settlement with Bellevue School District on claims stemming from punitive actions taken against Newport High School student Paul Kim.

Like Beidler, Kim had used his home computer on his own time to create an Internet parody relating to his school. The school principal contacted colleges to which he had applied and National Merit officials, withdrawing the school’s endorsement of the student.

Under terms of the settlement, the school district recognized the right of students to engage in free speech on the Internet, issued an apology to Kim for punitive actions, and paid him $2,000 in compensation for the loss of his National Merit Scholarship.

Courts have held that public school students have the right to produce their own publications outside of school and distribute them. In Burch v. Barker, a 1988 ACLU-WA case involving an unofficial publication by students at Renton’s Lindbergh High School, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of public school students to publish their own newspapers — even if the content offends or embarrasses school officials.

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