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Jewish World Review March 27, 2001 / 3 Nissan, 5761

Mike Bucsko

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Consumer Reports

School violated student's rights over e-mail -- PITTSBURGH -- A federal judge has determined that a local school district violated the free speech and due process rights of a student who was suspended two years ago after a critical e-mail he wrote about a teacher was distributed in school.

U.S. District Judge Donald E. Ziegler also ruled in a 29-page opinion that the Franklin Regional School District's policy for disciplining students who retaliate against school officials was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.

The ruling is believed to be the first in the country, outside emergency court orders, to set guidelines for school disciplinary action against students for behavior that occurs away from the school, said Witold Walczak, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The case involved an e-mail written in March 1999 by Zachariah Paul, who was a junior at the time. The e-mail criticized Athletic Director Robert Bozzuto.

Paul, 19, is now a college student in California.

The e-mail criticized Bozzuto "primarily for being large of girth," according to the lawsuit filed against the school district by Paul's mother, JoAnne Killion of Murrysville, Pa.

Paul wrote the e-mail on his home computer and sent it to the home computers of 23 friends. He was upset that Bozzuto denied him a school parking permit and implemented new rules for the track and field team, of which Paul was a member.

The e-mail, in an altered fashion, made its way to the teachers' lounge at Franklin Regional High School.

On May 3, 1999, Paul admitted to school officials he wrote the critical list, but not in the format found in the school. A day later, he was suspended for 10 days.

Killion filed a lawsuit to stop the suspension and the district agreed to provide Paul a hearing under guidelines in the Pennsylvania School Code. Killion filed the federal lawsuit after the suspension was affirmed at the hearing by high school Principal Richard Plutto.

Ziegler determined that the school district violated Paul's due process rights under the state school code because officials did not provide him with prior notice before his first suspension.

The judge also ruled that the district violated Paul's First Amendment free speech rights by punishing him for an e-mail written outside school property.

Mike Bucsko writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Comment by clicking here.


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