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12/28/2010
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High School Settles Facebook First Amendment Case

Florida student said her free-speech rights were infringed when she was suspended for criticizing a teacher on the social network.

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In what some are describing as a victory for the First Amendment, a Florida high school on Monday settled a two-year legal battle over a former student's Facebook postings about a teacher.

In November 2007, Katherine Evans was suspended from Pembroke Pines Charter High School after her principal Peter Bayer learned she had created a Facebook page that described her Advanced Placement English teacher as "the worst teacher I've ever met," according to the Kansas City Star. To support the suspension, Bayer said the honor student's actions were "cyber bullying/harassment (of) a staff member," and he then placed the child in a less rigorous English class, Evans' federal lawsuit said.

Evans took down the Facebook page in two days, after three fellow classmates criticized her and defended the teacher, reports said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida supported Evans in her suit against Bayer in late 2008, when she argued that her First Amendment right to free speech was violated. The Facebook case was one of several that raised the question of where a school's authority began and ended.

In a February pre-trial ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Garber determined Evans' speech was constitutionally protected because it was off-campus speech that didn't create disruptions at the school, nor was it lewd, vulgar, threatening, or advocate illegal or dangerous activity, the Kansas City Star said.

Now a 20-year-old University of Florida student, Evans is satisfied with the results, Matthew Bavaro, one of her attorneys, told the newspaper.

"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.''

As part of the settlement, Pembroke Pines Charter must expunge the suspension and destroy related documents, he said. The school did not return the newspaper's requests for comment.

There could well be similar cases in the future, said David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Nashville. 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 told the Kansas City Star.

And some experts predict the Supreme Court will eventually become involved.

"The incidents of students who are doing this are on the rise and school districts are at a loss to respond. We are walking on eggshells with it because we don't want to infringe on anyone's rights," Erika Anderson, a San Diego-based attorney who works with school districts, told the newspaper.

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