Legal settlement is reached over student's Facebook comments about teacher

December 28, 2010 By Jon Burstein, Sun Sentinel

A former Florida high school student scored what her attorneys call a victory for the First Amendment last week with the end of her two-year legal battle over her Facebook comments about a teacher.

Katherine "Katie" Evans' three-day suspension from Pembroke Pines Charter High School for the comments will be wiped from her school record as part of a settlement agreement reached in her federal lawsuit against her high school principal. In addition, she will receive $15,000 in legal fees and $1 in nominal damages, her attorneys said.

Evans was suspended in November 2007 after her principal, Peter Bayer, learned she had created a group describing her Advanced Placement English teacher as "the worst teacher I've ever met." Bayer deemed the honor student's actions as "cyberbullying/harassment (of) a staff member" and placed her in a less rigorous English class, according to Evans' federal lawsuit.

With the legal support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Evans sued Bayer in late 2008, arguing her First Amendment right to free speech had been violated with the school's sanctions. The lawsuit became one of a growing number of cases across the nation raising questions of where a school's authority begins and ends when it comes to students' speech on the Internet.

In a pretrial ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Garber determined in February that Evans' speech was constitutionally protected, finding it was off-campus speech that did not cause any disruptions at school and was not lewd, vulgar, threatening or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior.

Evans, now a 20-year-old student, had been ready to go to trial until the settlement was reached, said Matthew Bavaro, one of her attorneys.

"I think Katie is very happy her First Amendment rights were vindicated and the school did the right thing," Bavaro said. He observed that she had never sought money other than the nominal damages she received.

In addition to expunging the suspension from her record, the school must destroy any documents related to it, Bavaro said.

Bayer's attorney did not return a phone call and e-mail on Monday. Pembroke Pines City Manager Charlie Dodge, whose city oversees the school, also did not return a phone call.

Evans had the Facebook group up for just two days, taking it down after three of her peers criticized her and came to the teacher's defense.

David L. Hudson Jr., a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said that with the rising popularity of social media sites such as Facebook, there's been a corresponding increase in cases like the one involving Evans.

Garber's ruling in the case has some value as far as setting precedent, he said. However, much of the education law community is now awaiting how the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia rules on a pair of student speech cases out of Pennsylvania, he said.

In those cases, high school students in separate districts were suspended for creating MySpace profiles of their principals from their home computers.

Erika Anderson, a San Diego-based attorney who works with school districts, said she anticipates that however the federal appellate court rules, it will be challenged up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The incidents of students who are doing this are on the rise and school districts are at a loss to respond," Anderson said. "We are walking on eggshells with it because we don't want to infringe on anyone's rights."

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2.5 / 5 (2) Dec 28, 2010
If the teacher had made a facebook page saying, "Katie is the worst student I've ever had." I bet she'd be fired, and she wouldn't win the case in court either.
5 / 5 (3) Dec 28, 2010
That's because the teacher is in a position of authority. A doctor can't ask his patient to go out on a date with him/her because they are in a position of authority, and their influence has weight, but this doesn't mean doctors can't date, nor does it mean the patient can't be attracted to the doctor and ask the doctor out on a date after the practice has been completed.

Its not acceptable for a teacher to say things like that about a student, but a student has the right to freedom of speech, in fact, her expression can warn parents, and other students of bad teaching. If someone doesn't perform well, they are still at the mercy of performance reports. Its called a check. But the situation in reverse is completely different, and has no comparison
not rated yet Dec 29, 2010
So people with 'authority' shouldn't be allowed the freedom of speech?

If parents students and teachers began more regular, daily conversations this issue and more would come to light long before becoming an issue.

not rated yet Jan 01, 2011
No, people with authority aren't allowed to openly influence those they have authority over. A teacher can not say her political opinions in front of her students, who will likely adopt them, Doctors can't ask their patients out on dates, and Oprah can't say she will never eat beef again. All of these people have the right to freedom of speech, but speech can be a powerful tool of influence, and If all of us are supposedly equal than this kind of influence has to be controlled for each of us to have as 'equal' of an impact as humanly possible.

"This issue" isn't something thats going to go away. This child isn't being bad, she doesn't need punishing, she's expressing an opinion like all people do. Its a phenomenon that needs to be allowed, not corrected, otherwise be become a society of double standards, which we already are.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 02, 2011
No, people with authority aren't allowed to openly influence those they have authority over. ... Oprah can't say she will never eat beef again.

Hold on, Oprah isn't allowed to be vegetarian? Or at least not allowed to tell people?

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