"It will be a nightmare for schools to regulate all the speech on the Internet, and a nightmare for students to be monitored."
Student's blog sparks debate
Case calls into question
whether Internet postings
are free speech
or school disruption
By Eileen FitzGerald
Sun., Sept. 16, 2007
Danbury News Times
A Connecticut high school student punished by school leaders for a crude rant about them on her blog has sparked state and national focus on free speech. Avery Doninger, now a 17-year-old senior at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, sued the school district for violating her free speech and has rallied support from writers, activists and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
Doninger was banned last spring by the school principal from running for secretary of her senior class, a post she had held for three years, because she called school officials "douche bags" on her blog.
Doninger apologized for the rant, which reflected her frustration with the administration's handling of a band competition at the school. Still, she was not allowed to share the secretary post even though she won [by write-in vote] a straw poll. School officials said the officer position was a privilege and not a right.
"I originally thought it would be settled,'' Doninger said Thursday in a telephone interview after band practice at her school. "Eventually, I realized how costly this would be, to myself and others, not to fight. It would be a precedent that is chilling for any student. It's something that is extremely important."
Doninger and her supporters said the case is about free speech.
"I'm not a troublemaking kid. I'm fully involved in my school, but it was a clear violation of my freedom of speech," Doninger said.
ACLU of Connecticut filed a friend of the court brief in support of Doninger.
"This is a classic free speech case. A student expressing an opinion that is critical of the school, off of school property," said ACLU of Connecticut's executive director, Andrew Schneider.
A similar incident in Danbury last year illustrates how some school officials struggle with the Internet.
In an interview at school last week, Danbury High senior Jonathan Lange, 16, captain of the football team, talked about how a fellow athlete from another sport and a couple of others trashed the football team on a personal blog at the start of the 2006 season.
"We got really angry. We took it personally," Lange said. "I understand you should be able to say whatever you want about things. I understand freedom of speech, but they crossed the line."
Leaders must take responsibility for what they say, showing respect for elders and dealing with things that don't go your way, Lange said.
"To be a leader, you have to be a leader outside of school as well as inside school," Lange added.
Danbury High athletic director Chip Salvestrini said someone gave him a printout of the blog, which was typical of what students might say face-to-face, and it wasn't nice. What upset him was the school's athletes weren't supporting each other.
Salvestrini said he warned the person who started the blog that he risked losing a leadership role on his team, and that was the end of the issue. He admitted, though, that he would have a problem with Doninger's language.
"I'm not checking blogs. I don't think that's my responsibility," Salvestrini said. "Our program is built on trust and respect. To me, that was a classic teaching point to make to athletes."
Danbury High principal Catherine Richard said she could not comment directly on Doninger's case because she didn't know the details, but she said the Internet creates problems.
"Kids forget there is going to be fallout for things they write. The question is, at what point do you get involved? It's easy when there is a threat to someone, but it's not so easy when they're bad-mouthing someone," Richard said. "It's a fine line. It really is."
Danbury High senior Matt Ramey, 17, co-editor in chief of the high school newspaper, Hatter's Herald, was interested in Doninger's case and wondered why the school cared about her blog. He thinks her school overstepped its role."I think she has a responsibility as a leader to be a professional in public, but does it happen 24-7?" Ramey asked. "I don't think the school should have punished her or looked at her Facebook. She has to be responsible, but this was personal. It was out of context."
Doninger and her mother, Lauren, sued principal Karissa Niehoff and Superintendent Paula Schwartz for removing Avery from the ballot and have civil rights actions pending in the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City and U.S. District Court in New Haven.
On Aug. 31, U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz denied a motion for a preliminary injunction, which the Doningers are appealing.
ACLU executive director Schneider said Doninger's remarks did not materially or substantially affect the school environment, nor did they involve a physical threat -- two situations in which a school can argue its right to intervene.
"What students do or say at home is not for a school to regulate," Schneider said. "That's part of what makes our democracy work. We're in a constitutional system that permits us to criticize our public officials."
Doninger's blog should not be regulated by the school, he added.
"It will be a nightmare for schools to regulate all the speech on the Internet, and a nightmare for students to be monitored," Schneider said. "If students can't learn how to exercise their rights now, how will they become active participating citizens once they become adults?"
The Doningers are seeking an apology for civil rights violations, recognition of Doninger's write-in victory as class secretary, and sharing the secretary position with the administration-backed candidate.
Novelist Wally Lamb will be among 10 poets and writers reading from their works in a benefit for Doninger Oct. 14 in Litchfield. Lamb said he was inspired to join Doninger's cause in part because of his own fight with the state on freedom of speech in his effort to publish a book of writings by women inmates at York Correctional Institution.
"I hope to be part of a group who will teach a civics lesson to Avery and the kids in her school, and to the administration in her school," Lamb said. "The Internet is a gray area. I think bloggers are obligated to think along ethical terms and be responsible in what they say.
"That said, I think the administration is flexing its muscle in a way that is dangerous with regard to the first amendment."
But Bethel Superintendent Gary Chesley comes from another perspective. His staff informally monitors Facebook and Myspace Web sites, he said, because things that happen off campus can cause trouble in school.
"We need to be aware of what's up there. There have been occasions when we have called students in. We take action if something is distracting in school, either disciplinary action or police action," Chesley said.
He's found that the students understand his point that they need to settle hard feelings. "I tell them those ill feelings don't solve themselves, that they need to settle differences."
Chesley was sympathetic with the officials at Lewis S. Mills High School.
"We're trying to teach kids certain values, to respect authority and to settle differences," he said. "It's likely we would have stepped in as well. We don't want to be in a situation when things off campus come in and cause a disruption. That's when we'll take action."
Beth Duffy, chairperson of the Lewis S. Mills High School's Region 10 Board of Education, released a statement Sept. 12, speaking for the first time about the Doninger case.
"Judge Kravitz ruled that they acted appropriately in rendering Avery ineligible to run for the office of senior class secretary because she deliberately and publicly circulated information that was vulgar, false and incited members of the community to disrupt the central office," Duffy's statement said.
"Avery took her action after Ms. Niehoff had addressed the issue of appropriate behavior of class officers with her that same day."
She wrote that Niehoff withdrew her support of Doninger's candidacy because Doninger did not understand that her conduct was unbecoming a class officer.
"Holding the position of class officer at Lewis Mills is not a right -- it is a privilege," Duffy wrote.
Fiction and magazine writer Rand Cooper will join Lamb and other writers at the benefit Oct. 14.
"I generally think it's a bad thing when student speech is squelched,'' Cooper said. "(The Internet) is new technology that has not been sorted out. There will be new boundaries.
"I think there are going to be a lot of cases in the future opening up and we need to assert the important priority of free speech."
The fundraiser for Doninger will be Oct. 14 at 1 p.m. in the Litchfield Inn's Bistro East Ballroom. Suggested donation is $25 or more for adults; $10 or more for students. Among those subsidizing expenses for the event are Marilyn Nelson, the former Connecticut poet laureate, and Howard Zinn, author of books including "A People's History of the United States."
Contact Eileen FitzGerald
or at (203) 731-3333.