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Student's suspension for IM buddy icon upheld by US court

Ready . . . AIM . . . censor!

The review recommended a semester-long suspension for Wisniewski, which the school district's Board of Education approved. Because of hostility from the school and community, the Wisniewskis eventually moved away from Weedsport.

The 2nd Circuit bypassed the question of whether Wisniewski's icon constituted a "true threat" (and the messy factual questions brought up by the conclusions of the investigator and psychologist) by applying the law of an earlier, landmark school speech decision - the same case used by the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" decision as justification for upholding the suspension of a student who held up a drug-related banner across the street from his school.

The case allows for the suppression of speech that would materially disrupt the work and discipline of a school. In addition to that ruling, the 2nd Circuit has also previously ruled that off-campus behaviour that creates a foreseeable risk of disruption can also be punished.

The court in Wisniewski's case decided that, because it was reasonably foreseeable when Wisniewski distributed the icon that the icon would eventually come to the attention of school officials and create a substantial disruption, the school could punish Wisniewski for the icon's content.

The buddy icon was undoubtedly sophomoric, stupid and in poor taste - not even the student disputed that. But the legal reasoning the court employed should trouble free speech advocates and students who choose to employ their education to engage in discussions of unpopular, and possibly disruptive, viewpoints. Overzealous and partisan school administrators could easily apply the standards employed by the court to suppress legitimate speech that occurs away from school campuses.

After all, it's reasonably foreseeable that a group of students could conspire on Facebook to stage a walk-out to protest the war in Iraq, or to pull a school's fire alarm to protest the perceived offer of amnesty to illegal aliens. News of the plans could disrupt school activities if details ever leaked out - even if the walk-out and fire alarm never actually occurred.

In both cases, it is reasonably foreseeable that mere rumor of the plans could disrupt school activities. The students could then be punished merely for stating ideas and opinions on the website, without taking any actual disruptive action.

Of course, that's exactly the result that Justice Thomas was looking for: a student body forced by school administrators into cowed submission in order to engage in rote memorization of whatever crap is printed in their textbooks.

Actual thought and expression will not be tolerated. ®

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