In a novel legal case involving the Internet, three teachers in Indiana have filed a defamation lawsuit against a student who posted a Web site that suggested they were devil worshippers who should be shunned or mocked.
The suit, filed last week in Hamilton County Circuit Court in Noblesville, Ind., could well be the first in which teachers have brought a case to court over a student Web site, according to Richard J. Darko, the lawyer representing the teachers.
Darko said the suit was an appropriate response to the Web site, which left the teachers named on it feeling threatened and concerned that their reputations had been tarnished. "Threats and defamation don't have First Amendment protection," Darko said.
The site, which has been taken off the Web, was created by Brian Conradt, a student at Carmel High School in Carmel, Ind., an affluent suburb of Indianapolis. The site apparently was posted early in 1999, but not discovered by teachers until April 21 -- the day after the Littleton, Colo., shootings that shocked the nation.
According to the complaint filed in court by the teachers, the site included satanic-like symbols such as a flaming star. It also listed the names of 11 school district employees, including eight teachers at the high school, and posed the question: "Are they innocent teachers compelled to help others? Or are they really Satan worshipping demons?"
The page, which contained some misspellings, went on to urge visitors: "Whenever you see these teachers in the hallway or in class, tell them you know of their secret double identity and shun them for it. Better yet, after you inform them of your knowledge, point at them and laugh in their faces." The page also contained an e-mail address that included the phrase "tyme-2-dye."
The lawsuit accuses the student, who is 16 years old, of defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and of portraying the three teachers in a "false light." The suit seeks damages in an amount to be determined by the court. It also names the boy's mother and seeks damages of up to $15,000 from her under an Indiana statute, usually invoked in vandalism cases, that holds parents responsible for damage intentionally caused by their children.
Laurie Hansen, the boy's mother, said the family had just returned from vacation this week and was seeking a lawyer to represent them in the matter. She said the suit was an overreaction to the Web site, which she said had been meant as nothing more than a prank. She said her son had apologized in person to the teachers for the site after they learned of it, and that he had meant no harm by the posting. "He feels very sorry and bad about this," she said.
Hansen also said she feared that the suit would chill the speech of other young people. "This just stomps all over our right to freedom of speech," she said. "I'd be very, very careful about what I say on a Web site."
But Diana Jill Grimes, a geography teacher and one of the plaintiffs, said she was terrified when she first read the site, adding that in the wake of Littleton and similar incidents at schools around the country, many teachers feel under siege. "When I see students are instructed to confront me in the hallway, to shun me and the person who put this up is called 'tyme-2-dye,' I take this as a threat," she said.
"This suit is a way of saying 'It's not right,'" she added later. "A school should be a safe place. You shouldn't be scared to send your child to school. And I shouldn't be afraid to go to work."
Helen Shiffer, an English teacher, said she joined the suit in part to send a message to other students. "It's a way of making a statement that some behaviors are acceptable and some not," she said.
Apparently, the teachers are not alone in their concern. The Indiana State Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the major teachers' union, the National Education Association, is paying the legal fees for the teachers. The support is part of an effort by the union to promote safety in schools, said Daniel L. Clark, deputy executive director of the state teachers' group, which has about 43,000 members.
But Ann Beeson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who is not involved in the case, characterized the lawsuit as a heavy-handed response. She described it as another in a string of what she considers ill-advised efforts to clamp down on the free speech of young people in the wake of violent incidents at schools.
"It's a very sad day when teachers are suing for what is not only protected expression -- even if it's juvenile expression -- but for what I assume teachers experience all the time," she said, referring to adolescent behavior by students. ***********************************************
-- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org