When Avery Doninger, 17, complained on her blog about her school's apparent decision to cancel a student-organized concert, she didn't set out to start a free-speech debate.
The Connecticut high school senior called her school administrators "d*****bags" on her online journal and told other students to e-mail the school superintendent to complain. After the school principal learned of Doninger's crude complaints, she was barred from serving on the student council and from speaking at her upcoming graduation.
Doninger's blog post is now the subject of a federal First Amendment lawsuit that questions schools' ability to monitor and punish what students say online. "It's really important that students' speech rights are clarified and that schools can't reach into your home and discipline your actions outside of school," Doninger recently told ABC News.
Student pranks and gripes are nothing new. But, with the digital world accessible to anyone with a computer, what teenagers say off campus about their schools and teachers has taken on new resonance. Speech that once might have been punished without a second thought is now becoming the subject of First Amendment battles when moved online.
A 2007 report from the Pew Institute said that 55 percent of teens had online profiles on social networking sites. More than a third of schools surveyed in a 2006 National School Boards Association survey said student postings on social networking sites were disruptive to the school's learning environment. Of those, 25 percent said students were creating fake sites for teachers or administrators; 68 percent said students posted inappropriate content.
"The Internet isn't a legal-free zone," said David Hudson Jr., a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Tennessee. "You can defame someone on the Internet just like in a newspaper."
Though no reliable statistics are available, ABC News found several recent cases in which schools punished students for what they published online. In at least one case, school officials initially contemplated filing criminal charges against the students.
"Clearly, kids today have a lot more ways to express themselves than they did even ten years ago," said Kenneth Myers, who represented an Ohio student who sued his school after he was expelled for creating a fake MySpace profile for his principal. "If kids are putting stuff up about themselves, they're going to put it up about teachers and principals."
The 13-year-old student, identified in court papers only as R.O., outraged school officials when he created a fake MySpace page that included the principal's photo – and said that he enjoyed having sex with his students and an assistant principal. "It was a vulgar, terrible disgusting Web page," Myers said. "But these were also 13-year-old kids."
The boy's parents settled the lawsuit after the Parma City School District agreed to reverse the expulsion, erase it from their son's records and allow him to make up his missed schoolwork. The school district declined to comment.
In Jenks, Okla., four students were suspended for allegedly creating fake profiles of three teachers and one administrator. Jenks Middle School administrators had initially discussed filing criminal charges against the students but are no longer involved in the case, spokeswoman Tara Thompson wrote in an e-mail to ABC News.