Washington student, school district settle dispute over Web site

Monday, April 3, 2000

A Washington state high school student who was suspended after publishing mock obituaries on his Web site has settled his lawsuit against the school. In the March 28 settlement Kent School District agreed not to impose any further punishment on Web site creator and Kentlake High School senior Nick Emmett. The district also agreed to pay Emmett $1 in damages, $6000 in legal fees and to expunge his February suspension from his record.

Emmett was placed on emergency expulsion on Feb. 17 after the mock obituary section of his Web page, which was created on his home computer, was misidentified in a local news story as a possible hit list. Even though his expulsion was reduced to a 5 day suspension, Emmett decided to sue. On Feb. 23, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour issued a temporary restraining order preventing Kentlake High School from carrying through with the suspension.

In an American Civil Liberties Union of Washington news release dated Feb. 23, Emmett said he thought the Web site was a joke and his punishment was unfair, but was pleased with the outcome of his case.

“I was surprised they were punishing me and thought it was unfair. I had talked with administrators about the Web site, and they didn't say they had a problem with it,” he said. “I feel good that the judge understood my right as a student. I went to court to fight for my rights because I don't think administrators should be able to make punishments that are unfair.”

The ACLU of Washington agreed, saying the district's actions represented not just an unfair punishment but an inappropriate and illegal attempt to regulate the home life of a student. Asked how far the power of the school can extend into students' home lives, Doug Honing, public education director of the Washington ACLU, was unequivocal.

“It doesn't. That was our whole point,” he told The Freedom Forum Online. “If a student is personally threatening another, that might be grounds for not having him in school. But the school doesn't have the right to punish a student for exercising [his or her] free speech rights.”

Honing said that in the wake of the widely publicized shootings at other U.S. high school — especially Columbine — school administrators are highly sensitive to any perceived threat.

“In the climate since the shooting at Columbine we have some school districts take the issue of school safety very seriously,” he said. “But some of them we find are overreacting, and they don't make the lives of their students any safer.

“This is an ongoing dispute we have with school officials, some of whom think they have the right to regulate what children do outside of school,” he added.

As a term of the settlement Emmett agreed to take no further legal action against the school district. He says he plans to attend college in the fall and has put the incident behind him.

Becky Hanks, who works for the community connection office of the Kent School district was contacted by The Freedom Forum Online but was unavailable for comment.