Judge rules against student blogger's First Amendment claim

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Flag of Connecticut

On August 31, United States district court judge Mark Kravitz ruled against Burlington, Connecticut high school student Avery Doninger's request for a preliminary injunction to let her function as class secretary at Lewis S. Mills High School. Doninger had won the Class Secretary position at the high school. Earlier Doninger had posted derogatory comments on her blog about school officials and the school administration did not allow her to take the position as Class Secretary. Doninger alleges that the school's actions violated her First Amendment right to free speech.

Also at issue is whether Doninger's use of the school's email system for an earlier mass email played a part in the school's decision. The school claims that the email led to serious disruption while Doninger claims that the email was only cited retroactively.

Kravitz ruled that there was not a substantial likelihood that Doninger would win her case against the school and thus declined to grant the injunction. Kravitz stated that although Doninger did not write the blog entry while on-campus, "Avery's blog entry may be considered on-campus speech for the purposes of the First Amendment." Kravits reasoned that the blogs' arguable on-campus nature together with Supreme Courts precedents that students have more limited free speech rights while on campus combined to give Doninger a weak case.

The ruling has been criticized, with some observers arguing that by Kravitz's logic, almost any online speech by students can be severely restricted by school administrators. This ruling is a setback to Doninger, although she and her family stated that they intend to appeal the injunction and also continue with their lawsuit.

Doninger's case gained national attention earlier after Doninger set up a website to appeal for donations to help with legal fees associated with the cause. The exact limits of students free speech rights in public schools has been a matter of controversy since 1969 when in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District the United States Supreme Court ruled that students have some free speech rights in schools. In later cases, such as Bethel School District v. Fraser, and Morse v. Frederick, colloquially known as the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, the Supreme Court ruled that students in public schools while engaging in actions on campus or otherwise affiliated with the school do not enjoy the complete First Amendment protections that would normally apply to citizens in other circumstances.