PA Court Says School's Punishment for Internet Speech Violated Student's Rights

February 26, 2003 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH – A federal judge today ruled that a local school district violated the free speech rights of a student when it kicked him off the volleyball team because he posted an Internet message from home criticizing an art teacher.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represented student Jack Flaherty and his parents, praised Chief Judge Donetta Ambrose’s decision. “Judge Ambrose’s decision not only protects students’ free speech rights, but also protects the parents’ rights to raise and discipline their children for conduct that takes place in the family’s home,” said Kim Watterson, an attorney with the Pittsburgh-based law firm Thorp Reed & Armstrong who has handled the case without charge for the ACLU.

The case drew national media attention two years ago when the school kicked Flaherty off the volleyball team for engaging in “trash talk” with opposing players and saying that a district art teacher was “bad” on an Internet bulletin board. The school also prohibited Flaherty from attending any after-school events and forbade him to use school computers for any reason.

Late last year, the Keystone Oaks School District agreed to pay $60,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees to partially settle Flaherty’s lawsuit. Today’s ruling resolved the remainder of the case, namely, whether the District’s policies unconstitutionally restricted students’ free speech rights. In issuing the ruling, Chief Judge Ambrose relied on an opinion issued in a similar Internet free speech case also handled by the Pittsburgh ACLU.

“The court has sent a clear message that the First Amendment limits school officials’ authority to punish students who post non-threatening, but offensive or critical statements on the Internet from their home computers,” said Witold Walczak, the Pittsburgh ACLU’s legal director. “If schools object to what students are doing at home, their recourse is to contact the parents, not to punish the students.”

While Flaherty has graduated and is now a sophomore at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, his parents continued the lawsuit because they were afraid of similar problems for their three younger children, all of whom remain in the school district.

“We believe that these issues are important and that students should not be punished for exercising free speech rights, especially in the family home,” Flaherty’s parents said in a statement last year. “We are continuing this lawsuit because we want the judge to tell the school clearly that they do not have the authority to tell students what they can and can’t say in their own homes. That’s our job as parents.” Yesterday, the court sent just the message Mr. and Mrs. Flaherty were hoping for.

The case is Flaherty v. Keystone Oaks School District. The opinion is online at

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