School Officials Punish Student for Saying Bad Things About Them on Her Home Computer

It often seems like school officials are waging a war on the first amendment. Only recently, school officials in Alaska prevailed in the “Bong hits 4 Jesus” case, a major rollback of student rights and free speech interests. Now, school officials are seeking to extend their reach not only to public demonstrations like the Alaskan case but the Internet and extracurricular speech. Avery Doninger, a student as the Lewis S. Mills High School in Connecticut is being punished for calling school officials a name on the Internet and saying that an administrator is “pissed off.” She appears to be right, they barred her from serving in  a student government position because they do not like what she writes at home. Now there is a valuable lesson — it just belongs to a different political system.

Lewis S. Mills High School officials are peeved over Doninger’s complaints about their canceling the school’s annual Jamfest or battle of the bands. She had helped coordinate the event and said that “‘Jamfest’ is canceled due to douchebags in central office.”

It would seem an easy case of over-reaching by school officials, but U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz, sided with the school and said that it could monitor extracurricular statements and punish students for such statements. It is not up to the Court of Appeals.

If upheld, this would constitute another blow to student speech rights. While the Supreme Court has said that students do not leave their rights at the schoolhouse gate, it seems that fewer and fewer rights make it past the door. For a prior case, click here

For the full story, click here

27 thoughts on “School Officials Punish Student for Saying Bad Things About Them on Her Home Computer”

  1. Where does the reach of the School District begin and end? Can they punish a student for comments made in their own home if it is made to another student? This District Court’s decision would seem to be allowing such a irrational result. Professor Turley, I think you are being too kind when you suggest that the school may be “overreaching”. Would they be allowed to wiretap the student’s home and computer without a warrant in the name of maintaining discipline? The school is using a similar type of fear mongering that George W. uses by saying the school will become a haven for misfits and juvenile delinquents if the students can actually speak their mind at any time and any place. Can you imagine how unruly and devious these students will become if they are allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights? Would this District Court decision allow for forcing students to wear electronic bugging devices on their person at all times to insure their compliance? I am guessing that this District Judge was appointed by Bush or is a relative of Justice Scalia.(or both) Do you think that the District Court judge would allow his child to be silenced in this way? I have never understood how a U.S. Citizen that is less than 18 years old has less Constitutional rights than one over 18.

  2. As that well may be, but I was referring to contempt
    and my, generally, healthy disrespect…

  3. missing the “is”!

    Stover at Yale

    my childhood reading….

  4. For what it’s worth, Saxe v. State College Area School District, 240 F.3d 200 (3d Cir. 2001), was a case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that ruled that a Pennsylvania school district’s policy restricting “unwelcome” and “offensive” speech on public school grounds violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.

    In it Alito held, “No court or legislature has ever suggested that unwelcome speech directed at another’s ‘values’ may be prohibited under the rubric of anti-discrimination.”.

    .. “The plaintiffs in this case challenge the constitutionality of a public school district’s ‘anti-harassment’ policy, arguing that it violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. The District Court, concluding that the policy prohibited no more speech than was already unlawful under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, held that the policy is constitutional and entered judgment for the school district. We reverse.”

    Patty C
    1, March 6, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    For her senior year, Miss Porter’s School is just down the road
    – a piece.

    deeply worried
    1, March 6, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Patty C,
    You have a mordant wit! 🙂


    Duh, DW – it’s called ‘breeding’… 😉

  5. Deeply : Sorry to disappoint you but Alito is the bag man for the monied interests and the power structure. Too him, individual rights are no more than flowers in a field — nice to have, but they have to go when the government of business says it needs the land.

  6. The curious thing, is that I hold out hope for Sam Alito. I am going on out on a limb here, (but with the knowledge that I probably won’t be around 15 years from now to be forced to admit my error!), and say that Alito’s spirit may move him in a very interesting judicial path and I actually look forward to reading his opinions, dissents, and concurrences in the future. I really think he will be a source of a reasoned and original jurispudence that may come to resemble Jackson’s. Who can say?

    Of course, I was similarly optimistic of Scalia and Thomas when they were before the Senate. And I turned out to be drastically wrong!!

  7. Lauren:
    The kid’s speech was vulgar and false; the event was never canceled.

    But even better, she was never suspended or disciplined. She just wasn’t allowed to be an officer of student council. Its like a coach removing a “captain” of a football team because he doesn’t simply captain-like qualities.

    You obviously missed the whole point of Prof. Turley’s column. Which was that it was over-reaching on the part of these school officials to monitor such statements made by students that were nothing more than simple verbal criticism in the first place. Were there any threats made by this particular student? Nope. Did she threaten to harm any school officials? Again, nope. So, to quote the old Wendy’s ad, “where’s the beef?” Oh that’s right, the officials don’t HAVE any.

    If some school officials have nothing better to do than monitor students’ OFF SCHOOL time, they should either get busy with more productive endeavors or LOOK FOR OTHER WORK.

  8. What do Iran, Cuba, and the US public school systems have in common? All three persecute online dissidents.

    Students are not the property of the schools they attend. They are not inmates in an asylum nor convicts in a prison. The school employees had no cause nor right to punish this student, she did nothing wrong.

    This case has absolutely nothing to do with impolite language, and everything to do with a student’s willingness to criticize the state employees in charge of her school. If only we had more like her.

    School administrators should not be held immune to the criticisms of the students under their care. Educators have a job to do, and that is education. Their students are their customers. Educators are not prison guards, the principals is not a prison warden. The students in their charge are guilty of no crime sufficient to hold them in contempt or deny them their natural rights. Prison convicts are deserving of punishment when they question the policies set down by the warden. The same is not true of students in a public school.

    Sadly I don’t think that this case is going to result in anything but an increase in the powers of school employees to attack and persecute students whose speech they disagree with. Luckily the students are not without recourse. It has long been said that on the internet no one knows you’re a dog. The same thing is true of students, who will simply begin writing online under pseudonyms.

  9. The kid’s speech was vulgar and false; the event was never canceled.

    But even better, she was never suspended or disciplined. She just wasn’t allowed to be an officer of student council. Its like a coach removing a “captain” of a football team because he doesn’t simply captain-like qualities.

  10. “While the Supreme Court has said that students do not leave their rights at the schoolhouse gate, it seems that fewer and fewer rights make it past the door.”

    The CT State Constitution:

    SEC. 1. All men when they form a social compact, are equal in rights; and no man or set of men are entitled to exclusive public emoluments or privileges from the community.

    SEC. 2. All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their benefit; and they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such manner as they may think expedient.

    SEC. 4. Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.

    SEC. 5. No law shall ever be passed to curtail or restrain the liberty of speech or of the press.

    So, what portion of ‘the Connecticut social compact’ empowers the School District to exercise jurisdictional powers beyond school grounds?

    Just curious,


  11. For her senior year, Miss Porter’s School is just down the road
    – a piece.

  12. sorry on the misspelling of dam. My fingers were probably channeling my subconscious attitude toward this string of cases.

    JT, I’m no Linda Greenhouse (sad to hear about her impending retirement by the way) and no great student of the courts, but this case seems tailored to allow the 2nd Circuit to trim back on the doctine of disrupting good order that they made in Wisniewski. There the message was blatantly violent. The school had to expend resources to adjust to the perceived threat. Here, there are only rude words. No one is threatened and the venue is in no way a school sponsored media such as a student newspaper. What the schools are seeking is essentially a gag order on all off-campus speech critical of the school. That is facially ridiculous.

    I’m hoping the 2nd will come to their senses, but if they don’t then I just can’t see a majority for this speech suppression on the high court.

    for Wisniewski itself go to

  13. DW:

    I hope that you are right, but with Sam Alito on the Court, it will be more difficult. He is likely to vote with the district without much question.

  14. I can see it now …. the Junior Senator from Connecticut, on the floor of Senate – filibustering for the kids of Anytown. Jefferson Smith the Senator from Anystate, USA and Senator Joesph Paine, Frank Capra’s creations, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart and Claude Rains.

    Ah but they serve different masters. Smith, devoted to the constitution and rule-of-law, including the time honored traditions of the Boy Rangers; while Paine takes his orders from evil Political Boss Jim Taylor. So mean he even has his minions assault the Boy Rangers as they deliver, in the style of Thomas Paine – their pamphlet explaining the debacle – way over in Washington DC.

    Fast forward to Present.

    Junior Senator from Connecticut, works for Political Boss and apparently was elected by the opposite party… Senior Senator is known ‘good-guy’. Internet ‘pamphlet’ is used to punish student exercising free speech for describing school officials, apparently very accurately, and ultimately blowing their cover ??

    Judge Torquemada can’t recall the name Thomas Paine or US Constitution First Amendment although he does remember reading something about another school case concerning the Negroes in Topeka.

    Presumably Lady Justice is blind – it takes a great deal of training and / or neglect to make her look stupid and dangerous.

  15. We all here knew Morse was going to open the floodgates on the damn against censorship Tinker created. And sure enough right after Morse came down there was the 2nd Circuit in Wisniewski (again a computer message), and now this.

    But I agree with JT, this is clearly over-reaching and even the churls that formed the Morse majority will have qualms on this case, or so we would hope.

  16. I remember the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case very well, and I thought at the time that those school officials were acting almost like elementary school students themselves. To me, this looks like the same kind of case. Since when have school officials or administrators become immune to harmless, verbal criticism from students? More importantly, how to they get the “right” to severely punish any student for what any student writes at home, which was not written either on school grounds or in the school building? Obviously, they gave that so-called “right” to themselves, simply because they chose to be “offended.” Not unlike some of our lawmakers, who make Mickey Mouse laws against harmless things such as swearing in public, wearing baggy pants, or having a less-than-perfect lawn.

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