Student wins Facebook suit against school

For any high school or university student who “Facebooks” (apparently now a verb), a recent decision by a federal magistrate in Florida should come as welcome news.   The magistrate’s February 12th ruling supported the right of a student to post an entry on Facebook critical of her English teacher.  The Facebook entry, posted by then-senior Katherine Evans in November 2007, contained nothing obscene or inapproriate, nor did it counsel violence or any other improper act; it simply vented Ms. Evans’ frustration that the teacher, Sarah Phelps, was “the worst teacher” she’d ever had. 

For having the audacity to post such an opinion on her own — not the school’s — Facebook page, Ms. Evans was suspended and moved from her advanced placement English class into another, less-weighted class.  The specific reasons for these disciplinary actions included “cyberbullying,” “harassment,” and “disruptive behavior.”   That’s right.  A student who criticizes a teacher on her own computer and on her own time (not while in school), was deemed by Pembroke Pines Charter High School to be engaged in “cyberbullying” against an adult teacher. 

While the English teacher to whom Ms. Evans directed her disdain may have been such a timid type that simply having her teaching methods criticized on Facebook caused her great angst, the high school’s gross overreaction that included harm to the student’s academic career, should not be allowed to stand.  In disallowing the school’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit subsequently brought against it by the student to clear her record (and thereby permitting the suit to proceed), the federal court in Miami has struck a blow not only in support of free speech, but in defense of common sense as well.

76 comments Add your comment

Daniel Kurnath

February 26th, 2010
6:28 am

I for one think that we should live in fear of free speech! Allowing a student to criticize a teacher, a person of far greater authority is the first step to the complete collapse of society as a whole. If allowed to go unchecked this girl may have criticized even more important people such as politicians, or law enforcement officers. I suggest we form an action group immediately to come to the legal aid of the school, perhaps we can escalate this to a criminal offense, some type of violent hate crime.

Justin

February 26th, 2010
6:38 am

Dan. Your a nut job.

GEORGIA97

February 26th, 2010
6:47 am

The teacher should have filed a complaint with her union. Then again, she might have had to fill out a questionnaire of some sort. Maybe call an automated hotline. It’s usually easier to just bend over and take it.

shelscee

February 26th, 2010
7:15 am

Dan I certainly HOPE that post was made with a tongue directly in your cheek. If not, that may have truly been one of the most ignorant posts I have seen in some time.

Jennifer

February 26th, 2010
7:34 am

And as we speak the Georgia Legislature is considering a “cyberbullying bullying” bill which will embolden districts to apply the same nonsense and open themselves up to more litigation. Great – just what we need.

Michael

February 26th, 2010
7:39 am

Freedom of speech concerns government suppression of speech or expression. If the student attended a private school, I wonder if the analysis would have been different.

Most people think freedom of speech means you can say anything you want wherever you want. If someone were to slander me in an online forum, causing me to lose business, I’d sue the hell out of them. Just because I work with the public does not make me a public figure.

Justin- stay in english class

February 26th, 2010
7:48 am

You are = You’re not your

Dee

February 26th, 2010
7:59 am

And what if this student had said the teacher was the best she had ever had? Would all this nonsense have happened? I doubt it. If we have the right to praise, we also have the right to critize. If the teacher feels it was slander, let her take the student to court. The school is not judge and jury when it comes to free speech. And to DAN: they’re coming to take you away today — those friendly men in clean white coats (to quote Dr. Seuss).

Jethro

February 26th, 2010
8:09 am

Sure Dan. Ask the Germans about not speaking against a person of far greater authority. And Michael, if you are slandered, then by all means sue the hell out of everybody. But if you lose, then you pay. Oh wait, sorry. You have the right to tie up the courts with no recourse. My bad. ;)

shelscee

February 26th, 2010
8:13 am

Try proving she ISN’T the worst teacher the girl has ever had. That is why no charges of slander or libel were filed.

V for Vendetta

February 26th, 2010
8:40 am

As a teacher, I applaud this court’s decision. Let’s get some common sense back in our government (and our schools).

Justan Observer

February 26th, 2010
8:41 am

Dan – apparently everyone’s still a little sleepy. Nice job with the sarcasm.

Blue

February 26th, 2010
8:47 am

You people need to engage your brain before your keyboard. Dan’s post was an OBVIOUS sarcastic rant. The clue, even if you were confused for a while, should have been the “violent hate crime” line. I mean…the guy TRIED to let you all off the hook. He shouldn’t have to say “just kidding”.

shelscee

February 26th, 2010
8:47 am

Not everyone Justan as I said I hope his tongue was firmly implanted on his cheek while making that post.

Amy

February 26th, 2010
8:48 am

I am also a high school English teacher and you need thick skin for the job. I have had students tell me directly to my face that I am the worst teacher in the world. I also have a much higher number telling me how great I am. If you are going to get your panties in a knot over the opinion of one student then get out of the profession. I am in support of Ms. Evans who practiced her first amendment right to express how she felt about her teacher. 180 students pass through my door every day and while I may not get along with 100% of them 100% of the time, I never had that expectation. And no, I am not a 20 year veteran teacher who has mastered all the ins and outs of the profession; I am a third year teacher who knows that the most sacred protection of our first amendment right is the first one that we need to fight for when threatened.

No More Progressives!

February 26th, 2010
9:03 am

Daniel Kurnath

February 26th, 2010
6:28 am
I for one think that we should live in fear of free speech!

No More Progressives!

February 26th, 2010
9:04 am

Daniel Kurnath

February 26th, 2010
6:28 am
I for one think that we should live in fear of free speech!

I for one think that Dan should be on the first flight to Cuba.

Borat

February 26th, 2010
9:31 am

Meestur Bob…I think what you say eeze good stuff. In my beloved Kazakhstan whee can not say naughty naughty about no bodies. In the great America, the faces books are great things for peoples to say big things. Will you be my friend on the faces books? I geeve you more of our wonderful cheeeze.

ark

February 26th, 2010
9:33 am

the fact that anyone thinks borat is funny is far more worrysome to me than a frivolous lawsuit!

Teenage Girl

February 26th, 2010
9:37 am

The teacher is probably fat, gross, wears stupid clothes and is a yucking zit-face!

I’ll bet someone is going to throw deodorant tampons at her in the shower (wink).

Borat

February 26th, 2010
9:46 am

Meestur Ark. wheel you be my friend on the faces books? I geeve you some of my wifes famous cheeeze that meestur Bob loves too.

Dave

February 26th, 2010
9:52 am

Ha, I can’t believe so many people couldn’t figure out Dan’s sarcasm.

Glad the courts favored free speech, a rare occasion.

Borat

February 26th, 2010
9:58 am

Right on Dave!!!

Ragnar Danneskjöld

February 26th, 2010
10:05 am

I endorse our host’s argument, with one caveat: the right to free speech applies only so far as public monies and issues are affected. Had the Facebook critique been alleged against a teacher at a private school, I would endorse the teacher’s right to pursue a defamation case, against both the author and against Facebook as publisher. As this seems to involve a government school, where public monies fund all, the right to honestly criticize is inviolate.

William

February 26th, 2010
10:10 am

This is a great day not only for free speech but the beginning of pushing progressive liberal educators out of our school system. Now, all students can go to facebook and inform the entire nation of a teacher who is pushing their socialist agenda instead of real education. Our only problem is where can we find good teachers and not indoctinators?

Piso Mojado

February 26th, 2010
10:29 am

The mindset of conservative bloggers like William seems to parallel that of Republican leadership in general. They do nothing more than feed us a steady diet of misdirected blame, irrational ideologically-driven poorly-researched talking points, and accusatory nonsensical jibberish, ad infinitum, without ever offering an original idea of their own.

Go back to watching Fox.

Chris Broe

February 26th, 2010
10:40 am

Cyberbullying is real. How would you like to comment your opinion here and have somebody reply directly to you, “DIE you PIECE OF CRAP”?

This is the AJC online. A newspaper. Imagine reading the AJC print version newspaper and the headlines name you and read, “DIE, YOU PIECE OF CRAP”. The AJC online is the same thing because this is a newspaper.

I think that we need laws, and the host of any public forum should be held liable in both civil and criminal court for not policing and preventing cyber-bullying hate crimes like that. The AJC has set it’s own precedence by banning certain commenters who use certain words, so they already admit that policing is necessary. So the AJC itself has defacto admitted that there are victims of cyberbullying.

Why, the host of “View from the Cop”, Steve Rose, himself has expressed the horrors of being the victim of cyber hate speak when some person expressed pleasure over the slain officer. This guy actually stalked Rose through email exchanges. His shock is plainly obvious to any reader of his piece about it. This is a crime, people.

Perhaps a 300 million dollar lawsuit against the AJC online would fix this problem without legislation. Legislate from the courts, so to speak. Hell, Scalia does it all the time. Some clever lawyer could subpoena the AJC to provide the emails of those commenters who crossed the line against cyber hatespeak crime victims and everyone involved could be sued. The different blogs here in the AJC online have at least five individuals who stalk people from blog to blog with hate speak, death wishes, death threats, and cyber bullying. They have been repeatedly warned by the blog hosts, yet they are allowed to continue, so it’s not like the AJC cann claim they didn’t know nothing about it.

Perhaps a class action lawsuit. Have you been victimized by cyberbullying hatespeak with death threats and death wishes and violent hyperbole? Speak up, or else we’ll never get our newpaper back from the haters and the thugs.

Speak up, Atlanta.

The ajc online indeed.

Borat

February 26th, 2010
10:42 am

Piso Mojado…you are all wet. Obviously the ideaological meanderings of the empty suit in the White House and his cronies that are spending our country into bankrupt oblivion are mapping out a great course for our country. Everyone should check their brain at the door and let the Democratic elite dictate our lives and well being and take away all personal responsibility. We should just exist to serve the masters that run the government. You are a good little do bee. Now step and fetch.

Person with a Memory

February 26th, 2010
10:47 am

Justin- stay in english class
February 26th, 2010
7:48 am

You are = You’re not your

———————

And while we’re at it:

The cat licked its paws.
It’s cold in Alaska.
They’re over there drinking their beer.
Alcohol affects your behavior. It can have a harmful effect. A politician effects a change in the laws.

Fueled by Optimism

February 26th, 2010
10:54 am

Dee, I could not have agreed with you more! That is exactly what I was thinking. I tend to be more optimistic when it comes to day to day activities, and I will praise accordingly. Once in a while, if something frustrates me, I reserve the right to note that as well don’t I? Dan- Love your sense of humor! I get it!!! Thank Goodness you are covered with free speech too, or some others may sue you for offending them!

scrappy

February 26th, 2010
11:18 am

Chris Broe – I agree that cyberbullying is a crime and can be dangerous, but labeling all speech on the internet that is not rosy and praising as cyberbullying goes against common sense.

The real problem is that most laws, when enacted, do not allow for any type of common sense to be applied. Certainly saying that a teacher is “the worst ever” does not compare to someone singling out a person with death threats like “you will die” or “I hope you die” on a daily basis. But how does the law distinguish between these? It can’t, but it should.

Tasha

February 26th, 2010
11:34 am

I would like to know, why were they not just blocked??? craziness! craziness! I mean seriously. I was able to block someone that was consistent in sending me requests… took 15 seconds :P

Angry Moderate

February 26th, 2010
11:39 am

To those touting this case as a victory for free speech, I ask you this. How would you feel about Sarah Phelps creating a Facebook group called “Katie Evans is the worst student I’ve ever taught!”? Is that protected speech, or is there some kind of double standard?

Mr. Barr is not telling the whole story–this was not just an offhand comment from a disgruntled student. Among other things, Evans encouraged others to express “feelings of hatred” toward Phelps. Fortunately, some other students came to Phelps’ defense and told Evans she was being childish. To Evans’ credit, she did remove the offensive postings a few days later.

I’m not saying the school’s response was necessarily the most appropriate, but I’m glad to see that Evans was reprimanded in some fashion.

1st Amendment

February 26th, 2010
12:09 pm

Ragnar Danneskjöld: While the first Amendment is not inviolate, a student’s rights “do not end at the school house door.” Courts have made a distinction about hiring and maintenance of teachers in private and public schools; they have not gone as far on speech issues and would likely be loathe to punish personal opinion. “This is the worst teacher I have ever had is” pure opinion about a quasi-public official in this case or could be one that critiques a service that was given by a private institution. There is about a .000009 chance of someone prevailing in a defamation suit in any court in this land for something like this no matter where the student attended. I am exceptionally thankful that we are not England and have broken with the common law with the previous motherland.

All as for cyber-bullying, it seems another waste of time by legislators as most jurisdictions already have statutes against “Terrorist threat” or assault. Just like “hate crimes” legislation– it is often passed in a pique of public sentiment and does appear to pass constitutional muster (why would someone get more time for killing say, a gay, or Green Piece [sic] activist than an Asian and still meet the first blush 4th/14th Amendment protections for all citizens?), cyber-bullying seems more of an act to try to placate an otherwise constitutionally ignorant electorate.

Better to pass a law that allows for easier firing of idiots passing as educators (often “the real bullies”) than worry about the “cyber” issues. It seems that once public officials get a little power, they get busy throwing their weight around in ways that make no sense. The state needs to look no further than Hayden Barnes’ expulsion from Valdosta State. It was a stupid, pointless, unjustified expulsion that was ultimately very costly for the state. I’ll follow this student’s example in saying that President Ronald M. Zaccari was the one of the worst presidents that school ever had and that their legal counsel was one of the stupidest women to ever pass the bar; she must have been asleep the day they taught con law.

Written, danced, radioed, or typed, speech is speech people, ideas in a marketplace. “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.” Thomas Jefferson

Indigo

February 26th, 2010
1:25 pm

Dan was obviously producing some good sensationalist satire people. I laughed.

Teachers have Unions, School Districts have power, Principals have authority; the least we can do is make sure Students have Free Speech. Free Speech is the only thing we have to defend ourselves from these systems and groups which wield powers that are often overeached and abused. The student wasn’t even critisizing the teacher as a person, but rather on a professional basis. We have the right to critisize people’s professional life when they are using money to pay their bills. That is just something they will have to deal with.

Yeah some students are little spoiled lazy entitlement-mongerers who like to complain about things because they are having a bad week, but that doesn’t mean we should put a ban on expressing yourself just because you might possible be saying something that is subjective… Free speech includes subjectivity.

ugaaccountant

February 26th, 2010
1:49 pm

Massive abuse of power by the school in this case. The teacher and administrator(s) who signed off on this punishment should be punished in some significant way. It’s mind boggling the level of ignorance shown towards basic consitutional rights.

Algonquin J. Calhoun

February 26th, 2010
1:54 pm

The opinions would be far different if the teacher had cast aspersions upon the learning abilities of the student. This too would have been free speech but would have been met with derision by the court and by all you selective supporters of free speech as a right. Free speech should be a right of the student and of the teacher as well. You red neck, illiterate bumpkins would be raising hell if the teacher had dared tell it like it really is!

Barack

February 26th, 2010
2:10 pm

Let’s make no mistake and I want to be perfectly clear. I am for the First Amendment. In fact, I would have voted “present” for the First Amendment if I could have been there and not have to cast a vote. That is what I would have been told to do. Now today, in these challenging times, I beleive that all Americans should have the right to free speech, even though they may not have jobs. But I am to busy screwing around with Nancy Pelosi and creating government controlled healthcare to worry about jobs and the economy. That being said, since Americans love free speech, I think it is time for the wealthiest Americans to start paying their fair share for the rights afforded under the First Ammendment. I will call this system overhaul “Barack’s Universal Word Tax”. Therefore, in the future, all debate on thsi topic will be in an open and transparent forum on Facebook and all Americans will be friends.

Algonquin J. Calhoun

February 26th, 2010
2:16 pm

Learn to spell t-h-i-s before you start trying to disparage the President’s efforts to overhaul the national disgrace that is our healthcare system. Get a life you idiot!

Barack

February 26th, 2010
2:31 pm

I do offer my sincere apology Mr. Calhoun. I understand that you and I must be related … both idiotic products of the government school system. I defer to your superior typing skills. Alas, I have tried to get a life but to no avail. Do you have Face Book? maybe we can be idiot friends and have no life together :-)

Angry Moderate

February 26th, 2010
2:32 pm

Here is the text of Katherine Evans’ Facebook post, taken verbatim from her court complaint (emphasis is mine):

“Ms. Sarah Phelps was the worst teacher I’ve ever met! To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, *or simply knowing her and her insane antics*: Here is the place to express your feelings of hatred.”

That’s more than simple professional criticism right there.

As I stated above, I’m not saying that the school’s response was necessarily appropriate. But those of you who want to make Ms. Evans into this great hero of free speech just so you can take a cheap swipe at the educational system really need to get your facts straight.

Wanda

February 26th, 2010
2:33 pm

Did you really cheat on your wife, Mr. Barr?

Bob

February 26th, 2010
2:44 pm

algonquin, how is that hope and change. Do you bash Obo’s geography, 57 states ?

Dave

February 26th, 2010
3:55 pm

I notice that the school in question is a charter school. This is a strange hybrid that gets public funds, but is typically run by a private company. As such, the ruling may be problematic. While free speech is a great thing which I wholly support, I would also support a private school’s policy of banning any type of speech by it’s students so long as this ban was part of the larger school/student contract and known by the students and parents up-front. As libertarians, we must remember that the right to free speech may not justly be limited by government but may be voluntarily ceded by contract.

A. J. Calhoun

February 26th, 2010
4:11 pm

Dave … can you please explain what you just said? I went to a govenrment school and don’t understand.

ugaaccountant

February 26th, 2010
4:19 pm

angry moderate – That is a calm, rational post of criticism. Or are you against free speech as an inaliable right of the citizenry?

TechAccountant

February 26th, 2010
5:04 pm

Rights of what citizenry? We are all puppets of the Obama leftists…feed for their trough of self importance and their agglomeration to support their longevity of worthlessness. Free speech is an oxymoron.

1st Amendment

February 26th, 2010
5:22 pm

Of course it would be the teacher’s right to defend herself! Certainly people would go crazy if a teacher signed up for teaching and could not handle the heat from a kid with FaceBook. It is only a double standard by your straw man construction. The teacher could start such a page, and perhaps your point is true that it goes beyond criticizing the teacher’s professionalism. However, one would, for hopefully obvious reasons, expect professionalism from a teacher, but a student needn’t be “professional” in her criticism of an allegedly poor teacher.

Angry moderate, welcome to the stormy seas of fiery debate, intemperate discourse, “offensive” protected speech. Americans (those who inhabit the country in which one must presume you inhabit) have no constitutional guarantee to live a life free of things, speech included, which they might find offensive. The student uttered no fighting words; this was not fire in a crowded theater.

Calhoun is being a bit presumptuous in his supposition that all who are supporting free speech on this page are being “selective in their support.” Perhaps he/she can produce something a bit more dispositive than the mere assertion of such a claim.

Good point by Dave. The contract should be clear enough to bar speech outside the school property to extinguish the right to criticize completely, though. In the present case, the court would have considered the existence of such a contract.

shelscee

February 26th, 2010
5:33 pm

Again, the teacher would be hard pressed to prove she is NOT the worst teacher this girl has ever had so slander and/or libel is really not a valid argument.How many of us as kids said this teacher or that was mean or the worst teacher ever? JUST because it is on the internet makes it a case of bullying? Sorry but she really does have a right to her opinion, and that is what it was. Just as the teacher has a right to hers, but I am sure somewhere in her contract she agreed not to voice said opinion of students in an open forum.

Larry Flynt

February 26th, 2010
8:14 pm

Michael, your business is the worst of that sort I know of. I tell everyone I know not to do business with you.

Raghead Damitscold, you’re a tool. Get over yourself.

As for those of you saying the teacher should sue for slander, saying she’s the worst teacher is an opinion. You can’t prove it’s not true so you really wouldn’t win that suit my friend. It’s kind of like me telling you you’re ugly, and you are by the way. Take it from me. I have some experience with law suits.