In Beussink v. Woodland School District, 30 F.Supp.2d 1175 (E.D. Mo. 1998), a federal judge ruled that a school district could not discipline a high school student for maintaining a website highly critical of his school unless the student’s expression met the substantial disruption standard of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). The First Amendment does not allow school officials to suppress a student’s speech simply because they are upset by the content, said the court.
Beussink disciplined for a website critical of his high school
The case arose when the Woodland R-IV School District in Marble Hill, Missouri, suspended Brandon Beussink in 1998 after a student accessed Beussink’s website at school and showed it to a teacher, who, in turn, showed it to the principal. On his website, Beussink used some vulgar language to criticize teachers, the principal, and the high school’s website.
Under the school’s grading and attendance policy, Beussink’s 10-day suspension, when added to other absences he had accumulated, would have caused him to fail four classes. Judge Rodney Sippel of the U.S. District Court issued an injunction barring the school from disciplining Beussink.
District ruled in favor of Beussink and applied First Amendment principles to student Internet expression
The ruling was one of the first to apply established First Amendment principles for school settings to student expression on the Internet. In Tinker, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that students do not give up their right to freedom of speech at school, but that school officials may regulate expression to prevent disruption of school operations. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the Court ruled that school officials may exercise greater control over speech that is or may appear to be school-sponsored.
The Beussink case fell into a gray area, because the expression was not school-sponsored and it took place on a student’s personal website. The court was willing to assume that expression created at home might still have the effect of disrupting school discipline. However, it found no evidence of disruption, and concluded, “Disliking or being upset by the content of a student’s speech is not an acceptable justification for limiting student speech under Tinker.”
Beussink has influenced other decisions
The decision in Beussink has influenced the rulings of other courts. In Killion v. Franklin Regional School District (W.D.Pa.2001), a federal judge overturned the discipline of a student for creating and e-mailing to friends a document mocking the school’s athletic director; the judge found no evidence of disruption.
Cases in which a different result has been reached are those involving either substantial disruption at school or alleged threats against teachers, students, or school officials. For example, in J. S. v. Bethlehem Area School District (2002), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that discipline of a middle school student was justified because of the disruption caused by his website, which contained derogatory and threatening statements about a teacher and principal.
This article was originally published in 2009. Stephen Wermiel is a professor of practice at American University Washington College of Law, where he teaches constitutional law, First Amendment and a seminar on the workings of the Supreme Court. He writes a periodic column on SCOTUSblog aimed at explaining the Supreme Court to law students. He is co-author of Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and The Progeny: Justice William J. Brennan’s Fight to Preserve the Legacy of New York Times v. Sullivan (ABA Publishing, 2014).