Each of the cases below represents a case heard in the federal or
state courts. Your job will be to become an expert on one of the cases.
After becoming an expert on a case, you will teach the key components of
the case to your classmates.
Complete the appropriate section of the chart at the end of this handout to "brief" your case.
O'Brien v. Westlake City Schools Board of Education (1998)
Sean O'Brien was a junior at Westlake High School when he created a
website, "raymondsucks.org," which criticized his band teacher. When
school officials at Westlake accessed the site from school, the
assistant principal suspended Sean for 10 days for violating a rule in
the Student Conduct Handbook. The handbook stated "students shall not
physically assault, vandalize, damage, or attempt to damage the property
of a school employee or his/her family or demonstrate physical,
written, or verbal disrespect/threat."
As a result of his suspension, Sean's grades plummeted and he failed
band. Believing that the suspension was an unconstitutional violation of
the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, Sean filed a lawsuit
against the school district's board of education. U.S. District Court
Judge John M. Manos heard the case and agreed with Sean's lawyer who
stated that school officials do not have the authority to regulate
speech made by students off campus grounds. While admitting that the
case may have been different had Sean "hurled obscenities at his teacher
face-to-face on school grounds, in front of other students," the Judge
recognized that "the involvement by the school in punishing plaintiff
for posting an Internet website critical of defendant . . . raises the
ugly specter of Big Brother."
Upon losing the case, school officials expunged Sean's suspension,
wrote him a letter of apology for "abridg[ing] students' legitimate
exercise of their constitutional rights," and paid Sean $30,000.
Beussink v. Woodland R-IV School District (1998)
Brandon Buessink, a junior at Woodland High School, added comments to
his personal home page that criticized teachers and administrators at
his school. When a student showed Brandon's Web site to a teacher, the
teacher was upset by the vulgar language and criticism the site
contained. Woodland's principal decided to suspend Brandon for five days
due to the "offensive nature" of his site. At the end of the five days,
the principal decided to extend Brandon's suspension for 10 more days.
Brandon took his case to U.S. District Court, arguing that the First
Amendment's protection of free speech meant his suspension was
unconstitutional. District Judge Rodney Sippel agreed. In his ruling,
Judge Sippel said that school officials did not "show that its action
[suspension of Brandon] was caused by something more than a mere desire
to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an
unpopular viewpoint. "
Summarizing his opinion, Judge Sippel concluded, "[t]he public
interest is not only served by allowing Beussink's message to be free
from censure, but also by giving the students at Woodland High School
this opportunity to see the protections of the United States
Constitution . . . "
Emmett v. Kent School District Number 415 (2000)
The "Unofficial Kentlake High Home Page," published by an 18-year-old
student at that school, allowed visitors to vote on which mock-obituary
subject posted on the site should be "next to die." Shortly after
school administrators gained knowledge of the site, a local news station
ran a story in which the site was described as containing a "hit list"
of people to be killed. While the site contained a disclaimer stating
that the site was an independent effort and for entertainment purposes
only, school officials immediately placed the site's author on emergency
expulsion. The school's action was based on a school policy prohibiting
"harassment, intimidation, disruption to the educational process and
violation of Kent School District copyright."
Although the student's expulsion was quickly converted to a five-day
suspension, the student sued in U.S. District Court on First
Amendment/Freedom of Expression grounds. District Court Judge John C.
Coughenour admitted in his ruling that student websites "can be an
early indication of a student's violent inclinations." However, the
judge also stated that the student-generated nature of the site,
combined with the failure of school officials to present any evidence
that "the mock obituaries and voting on this website were intended to
threaten anyone . . ." did not meet the standards laid out in preceding
student free speech cases.
Upon conclusion of the case, the school district agreed to pay the
student one dollar plus attorney's fees and remove the student's
suspension from school records.
Beidler v. North Thurston School District Number Three (2000)
While completing his junior year at Timberline High School, Karl
Beidler created a website depicting one of Timberline's assistant
principals as a Nazi, drunk, and graffiti artist. After teachers
complained about feeling uncomfortable with Beidler in their class and
testifying that he found the website "appalling and inappropriate," the
principal placed Beidler on emergency suspension. Beidler was
ultimately transferred to an alternative educational program in his
school district, but he was allowed to return to Timberline for his
Beidler took his case to a Washington state trial court and argued
that his suspension and placement were unconstitutional under the First
Amendment. Specifically, Beidler's attorney argued that because the website "caused no substantial disruption" and school officials had no
"authority to police off-campus or Internet student speech," the
suspension was unconstitutional.
The state trial court agreed with Beidler's attorney, ruling that the school district had failed to meet Tinker's standard governing disruptive speech.
J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District (1998)
An eighth-grade student in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was suspended for
10 days before being permanently expelled from middle school as a result
of the website he published from his personal computer. This website contained vulgar and derogatory information about several employees from
his middle school, asking questions like, "Why should she [his algebra
teacher] die? . . . Take a look at the diagram and reasons I give, then
give me $20 dollars to help pay for the hitman."
After his expulsion, the student appealed the school board's decision
by taking his case to his the Pennsylvania court of common pleas and
the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Claiming a violation of his
First Amendment right to free speech, the student and his attorney
argued that his expulsion was unconstitutional.
A majority of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania disagreed,
stating that the student's website "materially disrupted the learning
environment" because at school-sponsored activities and during school
students were discussing the site. Furthermore, the court ruled that the
medical leave taken by the teacher as a result of the website was
clear evidence that the boy's site was distracting.
Tying it all together
Evaluate the following statement. Be sure to answer in paragraph form
and include a topic sentence, three specific supporting details, and a
"The Supreme Court's decision in Tinker v. Des Moines should be considered a landmark decision because the standards developed in Tinker are being used today in student free speech cases."
For Further Thought
All of these cases concerned the personal web sites of individual students. Do you think that these cases would have been decided differently if the issues concerned a school-sponsored website?