Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Courant Report

On Burlington
Free Speech

Free Speech Suit Filed
Student's Blog Entry At Issue

Courant Staff Writers
July 17, 2007

A Lewis S. Mills High School student who was barred from running for class office after she called administrators a derogatory term on an Internet blog is accusing top school officials of violating her free speech rights.

Avery Doninger, a senior at the school in Burlington this fall, was removed as class secretary in the controversy last May. She is asking a state judge to order the school superintendent and the principal to reinstate her as secretary of the Class of 2008 and allow her to run for re-election in September.

Lauren Doninger of Burlington, the 16-year-old student's mother, filed a lawsuit Monday on her daughter's behalf in Superior Court in New Britain.

The case highlights the tension between a school's need to maintain discipline and the rights of students to free expression.

It comes in the wake of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month concerning an Alaska student who hung a banner that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" during a school-related rally. The 5-4 decision put tighter limits on students' free speech. The justices ruled against that teenager because the banner's message could be interpreted as promoting drug use.

In the Lewis Mills student's case, according to Doninger's lawyer, Jon L. Schoenhorn, the student had a right to express her opinion in a public forum outside of school-sponsored activities. He cited a ruling from the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal appeals in Connecticut, New York and Vermont, that prevented school administrators from punishing students for expression that took place off school grounds.

The Doningers say Principal Karissa Niehoff and Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz violated Avery Doninger's constitutional right to free speech when the two officials punished her for what she wrote April 24 in a blog entry on her home computer, complaining that a battle of the bands-type jam session at the school had been canceled.

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