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Judge Rules Student's Facebook Rant Protected Speech

facebook-page-sm250A week after a teacher was suspended for posting a vague complaint about an unidentified student on her Facebook page, a student from another school is given a pass for posting a specific complaint about a teacher on hers.

Katie Evans is no longer enrolled at Pembrook Pines Charter High School in Florida, but in 2007 she was a senior there and unhappy with one of her teachers.  She set up a Facebook page to vent about “the worst teacher I’ve ever met.”  If she expected sympathy from her fellow students, she didn’t get it.  Instead, she was attacked by students who actually liked the teacher.  Evans responded by taking the page down a few days later.

But Evans’ classmates weren’t the only ones who had a problem with her Facebook complaining.  After school principal Peter Bayer got wind of it, he did more than disagree — he took advantage of his position of power and punished the honors student.  Despite the fact that the page had long been removed, Bayer pulled Evans from her Advanced Placement classes and suspended her for three days.

Evans, now a journalism student at the University of Florida, filed a lawsuit against Principal Bayer in late 2008.  Claiming that the suspension violated her First Amendment rights to free speech, she asked that it be reversed and that the records be expunged from her school file.  The lawsuit, filed on her behalf by the Florida ACLU, also requested that Evans be reimbursed for her legal expenses.

On Friday, Magistrate Judge Barry Garber ruled in Evans’ favor.  Denying Principal Bayer’s request to dismiss the case, he ruled that the student was within her constitutionally protected rights when she expressed her feelings about the teacher on her Facebook page:

“Evans’ speech falls under the wide umbrella of protected speech.  It was an opinion of a student about a teacher, that was published off-campus, did not cause any disruption on-campus, and was not lewd, vulgar, threatening, or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior.”

While the judge’s ruling doesn’t settle the matter, it means that the potentially precedent-setting lawsuit can now proceed.  And others are watching this case closely as it may finally clarify just how far schools can go when it comes to punishing students for non-threatening speech that takes place outside of school.

But what about teachers?  If Evans has the right to speak her mind about a teacher on a social networking site, does that teacher not also have the right to post a complaint about her?  Or should teachers be held to a higher standard by virtue of the fact that they are in positions of authority and privy to confidential information?

Image: Gauldo/Flickr

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