Ohio teen wins court order protecting Web site

Thursday, March 19, 1998

CLEVELAND (AP) — A federal judge has ordered a school district to immediately reinstate a student suspended for using the Internet to criticize a band teacher.

The judge ordered Westlake school district officials not to restrict what 16-year-old Sean O’Brien puts on a web site set up through his home computer.

The temporary order issued Wednesday by Senior U.S. district court Judge John M. Manos will be in effect until at least April 3. That is when a full hearing is scheduled to be held on O’Brien’s claim that the district violated his First Amendment rights.

O’Brien, a junior, said he planned to be back at Westlake High School today and return to band class.

“I’m going to sit there and do what I’m expected to do,” he said.

Chris Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said she was unaware of any previous court decision regarding a student’s free-speech rights on the Internet.

“The school cannot control the communication off the school grounds,” she told The Plain Dealer for a story today.

The lawsuit seeks a court order declaring that the suburban Cleveland district violated O’Brien’s First Amendment rights and asks for $550,000 in damages from various school administrators and the district.

The boy’s web site featured a photograph of his high school band teacher and described him as “an overweight middle aged man who doesn’t like to get haircuts.”

O’Brien also wrote on the site: “He likes to involve himself in everything you do, demands that band be your No. 1 priority, and favors people. He often thinks that problems are caused by a certain student and/or group of students and no one else.”

School officials contend they were entitled to discipline O’Brien under a school rule that requires students not to “demonstrate physical, written, or verbal disrespect/threat” against school employees.

District Superintendent Beverly Reep said she upheld the high school administrators’ decision to suspend the boy for 10 days but decided not to expel him.

O’Brien closed down the site after his March 6 suspension, but the judge’s order allows him to restore it. He said he did not know yet if he will reopen the site.

“I’m not sure my dad will let me,” he said.

He also planned to consult with his lawyers, Avery S. Friedman and Kenneth D. Myers.

Dr. Vincent O’Brien, an oncologist, said he learned about his son’s site from school officials who called him at work and said his son was being suspended.

“There were one or two minor words (on the site) that you wouldn’t use in front of 5-year-olds,” Dr. O’Brien said. “But it wasn’t anything really bad.”

He said school officials suggested that his son, who has a grade-point average of above 3.0, drop his band class and receive an F.