Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Federal Magistrate Rules Facebook Gripes Protected by Free Speech

Via CNN -

A former Florida high school student who was suspended by her principal after she set up a Facebook page to criticize her teacher is protected constitutionally under the First Amendment, a federal magistrate ruled.

U.S. Magistrate Barry Garber's ruling, in a case viewed as important by Internet watchers, denied the principal's motion to dismiss the case and allows a lawsuit by the student to move forward.

"We have constitutional values that will always need to be redefined due to changes in technology and society," said Ryan Calo, an attorney with Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.

"The fact that students communicate on a semi-public platform creates new constitutional issues and the courts are sorting them out," Calo said.

Katherine Evans, now 19 and attending college, was suspended in 2007 from Pembroke Pines Charter High School after she used her home computer to create a Facebook page titled, "Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I've ever met."

In his order, Garber found that the student had a constitutional right to express her views on the social networking site.

"Evans' speech falls under the wide umbrella of protected speech," he wrote. "It was an opinion of a student about a teacher, that was published off-campus ... was not lewd, vulgar, threatening, or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior."

Matthew Bavaro, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing Evans, was pleased with the ruling.

"The First Amendment provides protection for free speech regardless of the forum, being the Internet, the living room or a restaurant," he told CNN.


School principal Peter Bayer suspended Evans, an honor student, for three days for disruptive behavior and cyberbullying of a staff member. Bayer also removed her from Advanced Placement classes and assigned her to regular classes.

Bavaro, Evans' attorney, is seeking to have the court find the school's suspension invalid and to have documents related to the suspension removed from her school file.

"It will eliminate any official public record and validate her rights, since her First Amendment rights were violated," he said.

Internet experts say the court got it right, and that the ruling shows the law evolving with society.

"It reassures Internet users and students that they can still speak their mind," Calo said. "Its not a security issue. Its personal opinion and gossip."


"It's one thing to use that information to identify illegal or dangerous conduct. It's quite another to punish opinion and speech outside the classroom that doesn't disrupt the activities of the classroom," he told CNN.

Bavaro said Evans is not granting media interviews at this time. He said she is not seeking to get rich from her lawsuit.

"We are only seeking nominal, token damages. Maybe $100. Some token amount to show that her rights were violated," he said. This case is not about money."

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