Judge grants qualified immunity to principal in First Amendment ‘douchebag’ case

CONNECTICUT— A U.S. District Court judge ruled Thursday that a student had not clearly established her First Amendment right to criticize her principal in an off-campus blog that used coarse language, denying the student a trial on her claim.

Avery Doninger, a former student at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Conn., filed the First Amendment lawsuit in July 2007 after her principal, Karissa Niehoff, removed her from class office because of a blog entry that referred to the administrators in the office as “douchebags.” Doninger claims the principal violated her First Amendment rights by punishing her for her off-campus speech, which arose out of a dispute over the scheduling of a student-sponsored concert.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Kravitz decided Niehoff and Superintendent Paula Schwartz were entitled to qualified immunity, which protects “public officials from lawsuits for damages, unless their actions violate clearly established rights,” he said in the ruling. Kravitz cited both Bethel School District v. Fraser, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a student’s lewd and vulgar speech was not protected on-campus, and Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which recognizes First Amendment protection for student speech on-campus as long as it does not substantially disrupt school, demonstrating a confusion among courts about which standard to apply to Internet student-speech cases.

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By Liz White, SPLC staff writer


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