Notes Planned Appeal
In Burlington Free Speech Case
Mom defends daughter's right to blog speech
By BRIGITTE RUTHMAN
Sept. 5, 2007
NEW HAVEN -- Poised, intelligent and articulate as she may be, 17-year-old senior Avery Doninger was outside her legal bounds when she used derogatory language to describe administrators at Lewis S. Mills High School, a federal judge has found.
U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz's precedent-setting decision Friday to uphold the school administration's decision to punish Doninger for a blog entry she made outside of school in April chips away at First Amendment rights, her mother Lauren and her attorney Jon L. Schoenhorn said.
They say the implications of the violation of her freedom of speech are far reaching, and agree with Kravitz's suggestion that the matter could be one for the U.S Supreme Court to decide.
"We will appeal," said Lauren Doninger of Burlington, who filed a civil suit against the school in July. "It is a tremendously dangerous precedent. She is a good kid who didn't threaten, or cause a disruption. This is all about language, and it means that anything said or written outside of school can be censored."
Avery Doninger, who returned to enter her senior year Tuesday, criticized administrators including Superintendent Paula Schwartz and High School Principal Karissa Niehoff for a perceived effort to cancel a scheduled battle of bands contest on campus in the spring. She attributed problems as "due to the douchebags at central office."
As punishment, school officials at the 2,843-student kindergarten through 12 school district covering Burlington and Harwinton prohibited Doninger from running for class secretary for a year, a position she had held since her freshman year. Despite the ruling, Doninger would have won her seat back this year because so many students voted for her as a write-in candidate. The school ignored the write-in support, a decision her supporters claim violated their right of free choice. Students were prohibited from wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Team Avery."
Lauren Doninger was critical of her daughter's "unimpressive" language in cyberspace, which she chalked up to a learning curve. She contends it has nothing to do with her daughter's right to criticize.
"Punishment is up to me," said Doninger, who insisted that her daughter write a letter of apology. "This erodes the training ground for the democratic process, which must be that you have to distrust democracy occasionally in order to make it work. The embedded lesson of democracy at Lewis S. Mills is hollow. Theirs is an overreaching power to orchestrate."
The school assumed a parent's right to discipline it doesn't have, she said. In one of several interviews given in the wake of Friday's preliminary ruling at U.S. District Court in New Haven, Doninger was praised by a radio commentator as the mother who told her daughter "you're grounded, and we're going to federal court to file a civil suit."
The central legal issue, Schoenhorn said, is whether First Amendment rights should be left at a school's gates. He points to Kravitz's decision, which states Avery's blog entry may be considered an on-campus speech for the purposes of the First Amendment. While other court rulings have allowed school officials to censor obscene content from school newspapers, and to take action against threats made on Internet postings, students' rights to protest have historically been upheld, he said.
"The content of the blog was related to school issues, and it was reasonably foreseeable that other LMHS students would view the blog and that school administrators would become aware of it," the judge wrote in a decision he released an hour after four days of testimony ended.
"The school shouldn't be able to reach out into your public comments outside of school," Schoenhorn said. "It's the kind of rule you would expect in a police state, the idea that anything you say anywhere can be used against you no matter where you are. It creates enormous self-sensorship."
NOTE: The paper's print edition cites school board lawyer Christine Chinni's rate of $220 per hour and her associate's rate of $180 per hour. The paper also reports, "Chinni wouldn't say what the tally is to date."