A high school student was suspended for creating a Facebook page critical of one of her teachers and was subsequently suspended. She then sued her principal for violating her First Amendment rights, and recently, Magistrate Judge Barry L. Garber denied the principal’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and rejected his claims for qualified immunity.

Katherine Evans, currently a sophomore at the University of Florida, had created a Facebook Group while in high school titled, “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!” She also urged others to post their own feelings of “hatred” for their teacher. Though Evans took down the page after receiving comments in support of the teacher and adverse to her use of the Facebook group, the principal, Peter Bayer, suspended her for “cyberbullying” the teacher and also moved her from Advanced Placement courses to regular ones.

Evans took issue with her three-day suspension and the mark it would leave on her permanent student record, and thus sued the principal for an injunction and for nominal damages and attorneys’ fees and costs, citing the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The principal responded with a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Magistrate Judge Garber found that there was no disruption caused by Evans’s actions–they were neither lewd nor threatening, and they fell under the “umbrella” of free speech. Thus, Magistrate Judge Garber refused to grant the motion to dismiss.

As these social networking sites become more and more ubiquitous, it is becoming increasingly important to define what legal standards should apply to free speech right on the Internet, especially in connection with social networking sites. Evans’s trouble is only one instance of different legal disputes involving similar speech issues on such sites. Though this particular case has yet to be brought to trial, as one of the lawyers for Evans noted, the “judge’s decision had clearly extended the protection of First Amendment rights to online writings of a nonthreatening manner.” In an area of law that is still just beginning to become elucidated, this decision could become an important precedent for decisions involving free speech on Internet social networking sites.

Christine You

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