Student Fights Record Of 'Cyberbullying'

Katherine Evans said she was frustrated with her English teacher for ignoring her pleas for help with assignments and a brusque reproach when she missed class to attend a school blood drive.

So Ms. Evans, who was then a high school senior and honor student, logged onto the networking site Facebook and wrote a rant against the teacher, Sarah Phelps.

"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," she wrote.

Her posting drew a handful of responses, some of which were in support of the teacher and critical of Ms. Evans. "Whatever your reasons for hating her are, they're probably very immature," a former student of Ms. Phelps wrote in her defense.

A few days later, Ms. Evans removed the post from her Facebook page and went about the business of preparing for graduation and studying journalism in the fall.

But two months after her online venting, Ms. Evans was called into the principal's office and was told she was being suspended for "cyberbullying," a blemish on her record that she said she feared could keep her from getting into graduate schools or landing her dream job.

"It was all very quick the way it happened," said Ms. Evans, now a freshman at the University of Florida.

She is suing the principal of her school, Peter Bayer, for ordering her suspension. She is asking for no monetary compensation beyond her legal fees, said her lawyer, Matthew Bavaro, and she simply wants to have the suspension removed from her record.

A lawyer for Mr. Bayer and the school, Pembroke Pines Charter High School, has yet to respond to the legal complaint, filed in December, and refused to comment on the pending litigation.

Mr. Bavaro said he viewed the suspension as an attack on Ms. Evans' right to free speech. He cited a 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines, in which three Iowa students were suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the government's policy in Vietnam. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in favor of the students.

But educational disciplinarians disagree.

"You can express an opinion on whether someone is a good teacher," said Pamela Brown, assistant director for the Broward County School District who oversees expulsions. "But when you start inviting people to say that they hate a teacher, that crosses the line."

Though Pembroke Pines does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Broward County district, it does use its disciplinary guidelines, Ms. Brown said, pointing out that there are rules against threats of physical violence, verbal threats, nonverbal assaults and disruption of the school's function.

"We don't want teachers to work in fear, looking over their shoulders when they walk to their cars after school," she said, adding that Mr. Bayer "thought that what the young lady did was serious enough to warrant a three-day suspension."

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he was appalled by the school's position.

"Since when did criticism of a teacher morph into assault?" Mr. Simon said. "If Katie Evans said what she said over burgers with her friends at the mall, there is no question it would be protected by free speech."