In a ruling out of Pembroke Pines, Florida, a student who posted a message on her Facebook page complaining about her teacher was allowed to do so, as she was exercising her freedom of speech. Federal Magistrate Judge Barry Garber ruled that the student’s First Amendment rights allowed the student to post negative comments about her teacher.
“Evans’ speech falls under the wide umbrella of protected speech,” Garber wrote. “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.”
The student, Katherine Evans, has filed a lawsuit against the principal of the school who suspended her. However, most important in the case is that the ruling by the judge sets new precedent in such cases in which the Internet and freedom of speech have yet to be defined. Around the country, courts are still trying to work out how social networking websites such as Facebook and free speech limitations interact with each other.
The Florida ACLU filed the lawsuit on the behalf of Evans. The ACLU states that it hoped that this case would do just what it has; set precedent in free speech laws for the Internet and other forms of communication.
Evans posted a message on the Facebook page staying that the teacher was “the worst teacher I’ve ever met.” However, when other students saw the message, they did not react favorably. Rather, other teachers and students defended the teacher. Evans later removed the message from the page. The principal learned of the message, then suspended Evans from the student’s Advanced Placement classes, and instead placed the student in less prestigious classes. Principal Peter Bayer also suspended the student for three days.
In 2008, Evans filed a lawsuit against the principal in the case in the hopes of having the suspension ruled unconstitutional and to have it removed from her record. As an honor student, she did not want her record tarnished. However, the principal tried to get the case dismissed and asked for immunity in the case.
The ruling by Magistrate Judge Barry Garber declined the motion to toss out the case and said that the principal may be forced to pay damages and attorney’s fees if found guilty of violating the student’s rights.
Of particular concern was the fact that it was two months after Evans removed the Facebook message about the teacher that the principal decided to punish the student. The lawsuit is not yet settled and will head back to court.
In a related note, The US Supreme Court previously ruled to uphold a California Law which gives students even more Freedom of Expression rights. You may read our blog post about that case by clicking HERE.