Katherine Evans, a former student at Pembroke Pines Charter High School in Florida, filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against the school's principal, alleging that he violated her First Amendment rights by suspending her for creating a Facebook group in which she criticized one of her teachers. According to her complaint, Evans posted a photograph of her advanced placement English teacher on November 9, 2007, after school hours and from her home computer, in order to create a group for students to express their opinion about the teacher. Evans herself wrote that the teacher is "the worst teacher I've ever met!" She also asked classmates to "express your feelings of hatred" by posting comments on the page.
In copies of the comments attached as an exhibit to the complaint, it appears that three of her classmates posted comments, all of which praised the teacher and criticized Evans for creating the group. "Mrs. Phelps is one of the most amazing teachers I've ever had and there's plenty of people who agree with me," one student wrote. "Whatever your reasons for hating her are, they're probably very immature." Two days after posting the information, Evans took it down.
When Principal Peter Bayer learned of the Facebook group, he suspended Evans for three days, stating that she had engaged in "cyber-bullying harassment towards a staff member" and "disruptive behavior," according to Evans' complaint. As a result, Evans claims that the school pulled her from her advanced placement classes and forced her into "lesser-weighted honors classes [and] unjustifiably besmirched Plantiff's academic record."
Now a college student, Evans wants to clear her record (if not her name, which the publicity from this lawsuit will undoubtedly make difficult) and is doing what has become increasingly common: suing the school administrator who suspended her for violating her First Amendment rights. Indeed, this isn't the first such case we've seen. There are more than 8 cases brought by students who were disciplined for online speech in our database.
Based on the relatively banal statements Evans posted (and quickly took down), I think she has a pretty good argument that the suspension violated her First Amendment rights. It doesn't hurt, of course, that she has the ACLU of Florida behind her. (For more on student speech rights generally, see Mary-Rose Papandrea's blog post from last month, Schools Lack Authority to Punish Online Student Speech.)
You can monitor the progress of this case in our database entry, Pembroke Pines Charter High School v. Evans.
(A note of thanks to Howard Bashman at How Appealing for alerting us to the lawsuit.)