Student Sues School For Suspending Her Over Facebook Group

from the free-speech-or-cyberbullying dept

Last year, we pointed out that teachers are increasingly complaining that students are cyberbullying not each other… but the teachers themselves. Of course, in a lot of cases these seem overblown. Yet, that hasn’t stopped some teachers from arguing that cyberbullying should be a criminal offense. Yet, when teachers overreact and consider just about any criticism “cyberbullying” you’re going to run into problems. Take, for example, the case of Katherine Evans. As a high school student who didn’t much like her English teacher, she created a Facebook group called “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!” That doesn’t seem like cyberbullying. That seems like garden variety student-bitching-about-teacher. Even worse, Evans’ fellow students told her it was a stupid group, and expressed support for the teacher, such that Evans decided to take down the group herself

But, the school apparently felt this was a big problem, claiming that this was cyberbullying harassment and “disruptive behavior.” It suspended Evans for three days and pulled her out of various advanced placement classes. Now, Evans is suing the school for violating her free speech rights. As the Wired article notes, there have been lawsuits about free speech in school in the past, but the internet makes the issues a bit different here. Either way, it’s quite difficult to see how the school can claim that such a group is actually cyberbullying, and punishing the girl for venting hardly seems like a reasonable response (especially for an issue that was dealt with by other students in a reasonable manner). What is this world coming to when people can’t take the slightest criticism and insist that it’s somehow “cyberbullying” that requires punishment or discipline?

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Comments on “Student Sues School For Suspending Her Over Facebook Group”

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Luci says:

Re: Re:

Likely because she was pulled from the advanced placement classes, which can affect her future education. Higher education can be very competitive, and unless you have the grades, classes, and extracurriculars, you are NOT going to get into a “good” school.

Quotes intentional. I find a good deal of Ivy League schools aren’t worth the hassle that many put in for them. Not because the education isn’t good, but rather that the cliquism just really, really annoys me.

Mark Rosedale (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“…and I didn’t get into one.” @Luci that is very funny, but I agree. If you work hard and put the effort in you can accomplish your goals with or without an ivy league. The schools probably make it easier, and certainly offer a good education, but that isn’t the only way.

when I was in school I sought to experience life and enjoy myself. I certainly didn’t have the best grades because of it, but I think I am doing fine now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

No, she took the site down when the other students ripped into her for it. Little Miss Perfect picked a fight that she shouldn’t have and now she wants to try and game the system for revenge. If she wants to be treated like an adult, then she should act like one. She’s about to learn that there are consequences for your actions in the real world. You know that scary place where things aren’t fair? Would all you defenders be doing the same thing if the Teacher had put a page up declaring this little twat as the worst student she’s ever had? Would you expect that the teacher would be keeping his/her job? Have a seat morons. Hope she enjoys going to DeVry.

Greg (user link) says:

Re: I agree

Completely on this comment. Removing a student from advanced placement classes is hindering a childs development. Just seeing that this student is in advanced placements classes shows that she is more advanced than others, and should thus be treated more like an adult.

Suspension, possibly… however I don’t see this being a suitable punishment. I think she has every right to sue for rights violations!

DV says:

Re: Re: I agree

So, let’s put her in the “adult” world and see where her actions would land her. If I posted that “My manager, John Smith, is the worst manager in the world” on the web, it would probably result in my getting fired. And rightfully so – yeah, you can complain about John to every one of your friends and family, but once you post it where it’s available to be seen by the ENTIRE WORLD, then you deserve to get reprimanded or worse. I know the school board will win – what if she had taken an ad out in the paper saying the same thing? Would the school THEN be right to suspend her?

John says:

Re: Re: Re: I agree

Yes but you don’t pay taxes to go work for John. The difference is she is the customer, in the real world the customer is usually listened too. She is completely in her rights to be critical of a teacher that has a job of teaching, if that service is not being provided. As long as she complains about things in a truthful manner she is in the right, as far as the law is concerned. Unless she committed liable which has to be done intentionally then the schools actions cross a line stepping into harassment and suppressing constitutional rights which is an actual violation of the law.

Sean says:

Re: Re: Re: I agree

Who cares if it’s available to the entire world? I’ll post my own name on here to be available to the entire world and that won’t make a difference.

My name is Sean Fogarty and I am a real big dumb poophead.

There, who cares if it’s your manager? If your manager were a world-wide superstar, then it would make a difference if his name was seen world-wide, but putting the name of your nobody boss online doesn’t make any difference.

James says:


Maybe not over the suspension, which is more symbolic than effective, but even from a be-the0bigger perspective, there would definitely be some lawyers ripping some new ones if I got removed from AP classes. That’s almost irreparable alteration of a kid’s future, whereas giving a teacher a bad reputation through a group like that could potentially affect her prospects within her career (both negatively and positively) but would not change what’s available to her in life. The “bigger” one should be the more mature adults that realize kids will make mistakes and must learn from them without actually reaching ahead of them and shutting doors!

Trevlac says:

Re: Why...

What you said brings up an interesting point in law. The law never grants reparations to any party based on “potential” damages such as what her group could have done to the teacher. It only does so based on provable damages such as the removal of the young girl from her AP courses.

From a law standpoint, the school was wrong and the girl was right.

From a non-legal standpoint, the school overreacted and overstepped their boundaries and the girl was a typical young adult doing what they do best.

Anon2 says:

This issue is going to be addressed soon by the US Court of Appeals for the 3d Circuit, considered to be just about the most pro-free speech federal appeals court in the country (and the most important, in part because the ACLU and several other organizations have based their free speech advocacy programs in Philadelphia). It has fairly consistently come down on the side of less restrictions on speech. Even if favorable to free speech advocates, it won’t be binding in Florida, but it will be something that court will keep in mind.

Absent people willing to take on the powers that be in their worlds, none of us would be able to say much of anything anymore. These lawsuits are not about money — damages rarely amount to much and the plaintiffs generally are only looking for injunctive relief — but the core First Amendment principle that government may not willy-nilly restrict our right to express ourselves just because it upsets somebody. Even if she only got some “ordinary” level of discipline and was not removed from her AP classes, she’d be absolutely right to sue if negotiations could not convince the school to back down. Her being a high school student, and was only subjected to discipline of some form, does not mean it’s frivolous. Tinker is going to be on the books for 40 years in 2009, and it’s still the best articulation of this bedrock principle as concerns students that the SCOTUS has ever issued.

Brian says:

I agree

I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the suspension, but why do most parents these days seem to think it’s okay for their child to get away with doing and saying whatever they want? You say taking a high school student out of AP classes hinders the development of their education, which is certainly true; however, being a stupid douche (whose intent was obviously to damage the teachers reputation, not resolve whatever disagreement the student may have had with the teacher) also hinders development.

High school kids know that this shit isn’t okay. They just know that they have a good chance of escaping any consequences so they continue to do these things anyway. You certainly can’t agree that this was the right course of action for the student to take. Try considering this from the other side of things.

>Just seeing that this student is in advanced placements classes shows that she is more advanced than others, and should thus be treated more like an adult.

Speaking from experience, kids in AP classes are rarely more physically and emotionally developed than kids who aren’t in AP classes. The kids may know more in terms of educational level, but they’re still kids, and they still do the same stupid things.

Rose M. Welch says:

Re: I agree

Why isn’t creating a sucks group okay? Adults do it all the time about businesses, doctors, etc. There are plenty of sucks sites on the Internet; why is her so different?

They certainly wouldn’t suspend someone and remove them from AP classes if someone went home and used their personal computer to write an e-mail about how much they disliked their teacher or if they spoke on their personal telephone about how much they disliked their teacher. Why is a group on Facebook any different?

For that matter, why didn’t the teacher just accept it as feedback and go from there. Either it’s constructive feedback and they can learn from it, or it’s not and they can act like an adult and ignore it…

Is it just me are most adults just bigger six-year-olds?

Ro says:

Typical education facility

I find tutors are incredibly sensitive to the slightest criticism. If you merely point out that they have made a basic error and following logic what they have asserted is simply not possible that will send them into an apoplectic fit and they will tell you there is no appeals procedure, they can be as negligent as possible and make a whole pile of mistakes but as long as there is no deliberate attempt to treat you unfairly you are stuck with that mark. They then go on to mark you at 20% lower than the average you achieve from the rest of the college staff for the rest of your college career. I am not at all surprised that they would resort to the illegal measure of using detrimental sanctions to prevent free speech. However, an advanced student should have been a bit more aware that she was crossing the very people who can flush the rest of her life down the pan on a whim.

Anonymous Coward says:

A fine example to be made of a free thinking individual.

The school is teaching the student a valuable lesson about voicing negative opinions about authority figures. Of course the current system is going to back up the decision of the school, after all it reinforces the programming of the establishment to not question your superiors.

This is a prime example of fascism. In a few years if not months this is the sort of thing to be expected from our government. These infractions on our civil rights can NOT be allowed. Unfortunately it is only going to get worse. As our government continues to fail us in their endeavors to serve themselves we’ll see more and more of this. It just won’t happen in court, the people who speak out against those that hold power will just disappear.

GET YOUR MONEY LITTLE GIRL!! SUE THE PANTS OFF THAT SCHOOL WHILE YOU STILL HAVE THE RIGHT!! The basic principals that we all believe we live by are at stake here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Slippery Slope

Why would anyone support the decision to discipline this girl. What authority can the school claim over actions not taking place at the school or school sponsored function. If a non-student created this group what would happen? Most likely they would send a false DMCA take down notice, then sue for libel (or slander I never remember which is which). Which would give the person the opportunity to defend themselves. But a student is immediately punished. Why is that ok to anyone?

DV says:

Re: Slippery Slope

“Why would anyone support the decision…?”

Because the facebook group is a very public posting that is read by not only the students and faculty, but the entire community (and world, for that matter). If she had taken out an ad in the paper that stated: “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met! – paid for by Katherine Evans”, would you not think this deserves SOME kind of punishment? It’s actually pretty libelous.

The article said that this is “garden variety student-bitching-about-teacher”, but it is clearly not. It would be if the bitching was purely among private company, but once you post or broadcast this stuff to everyone in the world, it becomes something entirely different.

Rose M. Welch says:

Re: Re: Slippery Slope

No, that’s not libelous. That’s an opinion. If she said that Ms. Sarah Phelps is a cross-dresser (assuming that she is, in fact, not a cross-dresser) THAT would be libelous.

Expressing an opinion based on facts and real-life experiences with someone is an opinion and is protected by free speech, even if she took out a newspaper ad.

Rose M. Welch says:

Re: Re: Slippery Slope

Just thinking… What if it were garden variety bitching about Wal-Mart on the Internet in an I-Hate-Wal-Mart group? And people gathered to share their experiences about Wal-Mart, naming names as they went? That’s certainly not libelous and is protected speech. It’s even helpful to consumers.

How about garden variety bitching about a doctor and his forgetfulness or lack of a decent bedside manner on the Internet in an I-Hate-Dr.X group? That’s certainly not libelous and is protected speech. It’s even helpful to potential patients.

I could go on, but I feel I’ve made my point.

Rose M. Welch says:

Re: Re: Slippery Slope

Me, again… I’d also like to state that my mother-in-law (who would be sainted if only she were Catholic) was a teacher for twenty-seven years. In addition, my children attend school and have had their share of mediocre and excellent teachers, so I am not out to get teachers. I simply don’t understand why so many people think they should get special treatment over people who practice in any other important profession…

blinkdt says:

Wrong Forum for Criticism

“What would they have done if the group had like a 100 kids that (sic) agreed with her?”

Then the teacher would be fired. But not becuase of some Facebook group started by a kid with a weed up her ass, but because of a parent community in uproar based on feedback from their children. They would petition the administration–after trying to deal directly with the teacher to no avail. Channels, people, channels.

I’ve contacted Facebook to remove groups started by students. Issues like alleged rape, assault and battery, little things like that. And Facebook removes then because they are being prosecuted in courts. Channels, people, channels.

You got something to say to me? Let’s talk about it. You post it online? You coward, you’re toast. Make my life miserable? I’ll make yours a living hell. But you already knew that.

Chris says:


My fault, I hit enter instead of tab (why? I’m tired)

Let me just say something to those of you that are of the opinion that Ms. Evans should sue the school for all it’s worth.

First, if you had read the lawsuit, you would see that she is not suing the school, but the school’s principle, Mr. Peter Bayer, in a personal capacity.

Second, if she sues the school for all it’s worth, as you have suggested she do, it leaves a lot less money for students like me at that school. Our school is already in a battle with the school board for the money it owes us. There have been drastic cuts at the school. Teachers can’t print all the resources that they want to for students because they are only alloted a certain amount of paper/toner a year. Our books are falling apart because there isn’t money to buy new school books.

Sure, she can sue the school and school board for all it’s worth, but that leaves the majority of the students up a creek without a paddle. What needs to happen is the lawsuit needs to be dropped and the suspension needs to be expunged. That’s all the suit ask for (that and legal fees as well as small monetary compensation)

So as a student at the school where the event took place, I am against Evans suing for all the school is worth because it leaves me, my friends, and everyone else worse off.

PS. To whoever was asking about Ms. Phelps, she’s rather nice and is a good teacher. Most kids “hate” her because her class is hard. She makes you do stuff that you don’t want to do (large projects, analyzing this and that, finding the meaning of the apple seed*, etc…). There is nothing for the school to investigate.

*I made the apple seed example up, I haven’t had Ms. Phelp’s class but I know her and I know people that have had her. All of what I said stands true though

Rose M. Welch says:


That may be all she wants… People usually ask for more than what they want so that they have room to negotiate at the settlement table, although it looks to me like the principal and the school admins are not willing to go there. They acted badly and, as a result, they are going to lose money that should rightfully be spent on YOU. That is their fault so make sure that you get the blame right when you get upset about it… 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:


The school flexed their muscle to sling consequences around as part of a fascist regime to control the voicing of opinion. Now it’s this young girl’s turn to flex her muscle.

This has NOTHING to do with Mrs Phelps, this has NOTHING to do with what school or which little girl. This is about basic rights in this country to express opinion. It’s not like there was a death threat made. This was simple opinion.

Dan says:

Just maybe Ms. Phelps is the worst teacher Ms. Evans ever had. If so Ms. Evans has a right to state that opinion and Ms. Phelps has the right to bring suit for libel and or slander, if she feels she has sufficient grounds. However Ms. Phelps and the school exercised their GOD complex and made a rule that infringes on Ms. Evans first amendment rights. Now Ms. Evans is suing for damages as is her right. Personally I would find the best damn attorney money can buy and go for whatever the statutory limits allow.

hegemon13 says:


Unlike the case earlier where the student was suspended for making fake online accusations of sexual harassment, there is no crime involved here. In that other case, I supported the school, as I felt the student got off easy, and that the school decided to handle the issue internally rather than send it to law enforcement.

In this case, however, the girl simply states an opinion. Clearly, that is protected free speech, unless, of course, the student set up the profile using school computers. Even then, it seems to me that the best response would be for the school counselor to do his job. Sit down with the student and, possibly, the teacher to figure out where the real problem is. For crying out loud, the kid didn’t even use profanity. I would expect a profile like that to read “Mrs…is a bitch.” I think she was pretty unoffensive.

Me says:

First of all… She was stating her opinion… That is why it was not libel. She was not saying this “This teacher slept with this person”, or “This teacher lets kids cheat”. She was stating that this teacher was the worst she had ever met. For whatever reason she said this it was true in her eyes because it is an opinion. No judge in the world would allow a case like this as libel or slander.

Keep in mind we do not know what was said inside the group or id she was posting lies about the teacher in the group.

Her parents should displine her. It is their responsibility for her actions out side of school. The school should not be getting involved in the discipline that the parents should be demonstrating. They have every right to send home a letter to Mom, and Dad saying, “You know what your daughter is doing” but they over stepped their bounds when the suspended her and took her out of her AP classes.

Sean says:

This poor girl, but really, these poor old people who live in this fragile world where anything said against them is misconstrued as an offense. These faculty should be ashamed – teachers and administrators should be educating the students, not just within the classroom but setting examples outside. You want to know why she is suing? Because she has learned from a bunch of children (teachers/admins) that the best way to react when something doesn’t go your way is to OVER-REACT.

You see, here she has learned from her teachers who took her out of classes and suspended her for nothing, that the best way to retort is to sue.

I guess she is learning from them, but all the wrong things.

Mark Rosedale (profile) says:

cyberbullying and bullying are the same thing

In the comments of the Wired article people were going of that this student deserves everything she got. I don’t understand this. The internet doesn’t provide new problems. They may change the dynamics, but there really aren’t any new problems. Bullying and cyberbullying are the same thing. Schools shouldn’t treat them differently and we don’t need different laws (perhaps we need to adapt laws, but not new ones). I think the comments showed a spill over from the Megan Merier case. It seems that people think cyberbullying is a huge deal and that any offender, regardless of age, should be thrown to the flames.

But beyond that I don’t think she did anything wrong to start with. People make comments like this, and worse, about President Bush all the time. As long as those comments aren’t threatening no one would expect the government punish them for those comments. If this girl organized a petition or staged a demonstration would she have been suspended? All of that is the same. FB is used to rally students in an effort against a teacher, only in this case it didn’t work. That is exactly how it should have been handled. If it worked than likely the teacher is bad, since it didn’t work, truth prevailed. The school would have been better off just to leave it at that.

Further I do see this as an issue of free speech. She should be allowed to have a group or express her opinions as she sees fit. If that is cyberbullying than we live in a scary nation.

Anonymous Coward says:

If a football player created a page talking about how bad the coach was, would anyone have any problems with the coach benching the player? I wouldn’t.

Being involved in AP courses should be a privilege, just like participating in athletics or other school functions. If a kid is a jerk, maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to participate.

Rose M. Welch says:

Re: Re:

So you’re saying that jerks shouldn’t be allowed to have an education commensurate with their level of experience or intelligence?

Who gets to decide who’s a jerk? Some burned-out administrator? A council or a board? What are the criteria?

Roflmao, that is a really stupid and poorly-thought-out opinion.

But you know what? I will always defend your right to state that opinion…

teknosapien (profile) says:

Whos the adult

When I was in school the teachers were adults and dealt with student criticism in other ways. They IGNORED IT.
Come on here what the hell is going on we, have hyper sensitive teachers that cant take criticism.
As far as being involved in AP courses (something said here) It is the responsibility of the school to educate the students if a student is beyond the class then the school has the responsibility of creating or placing that student in a higher level class or even grade. If they fail to meet that responsibility then they should be held accountable. My school system was successfully sued for failure to provide academic growth of one student that was beyond the current curriculum they basically paid for his college for the last two years of his high school education.

One more thing, most bright student that do things like this are basically bored in class do to not having a challenge. Maybe this teacher should stop scouring facebook/my space /whatever and do what they are paid to do design curriculum that challenges students rather than bores the crap out of them

Matt says:

To all the supporters of the school

In the Tinker decision, it was decided that students do not shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate. Since she wasn’t in the school at the time she made this group, the school had no jurisdiction.

For those who think that this is a waste of taxpayer money: What were school administrators doing looking up facebook profiles of students on taxpayer time? Since the profile was deleted, it must’ve taken a lot of time. Plus they are the ones wasting money trying to assert they have power over students no matter where they are. I’d say the admins are the ones wasting the money.

And to the teachers here. That particular teacher should grow up. If you are a teacher, you will have students who will say bad things about you. REAL teachers suck it u, and go about their day. People who should find another profession go whine and cry to get the principal to silence any criticism.

DOUG says:


theres this thing called the constitution and it’s very first line is called free speech, this principal has NO right to punish anyone for anything that did not happen on school grounds. This is what this country not just this city and group of kids are having done to them, wait and see the constitution and bill of rights are going right out the door and no one is saying a word because we are so afraid of terrorists, the real terrorists are in washington dc, leave the kids alone, when i was in school if we were to do something like this they would just say stand in the corner or write some sentences, like i said there was nothing done on school property and unless 30 some odd parents gave this guy parental rights he should have no power to govern what these kids do outside of school

Justin says:


You are so right, free speach, but guess what, its a school and they have freedom to do what they want. I learned a long time ago, don’t burn your bridges, guess what she burnt her bridge, now she can learn to think before she says, or countinue to learn the hard way. Why did we ever stop resecting our teachers, I’m just trying to remember.

Justin says:

Wheres the parents

If I was to talk down my teachers on the internet, my mother would of sent me to the next world, it would not happen. Where are the parents, this is what is wrong with kids, no one teaches them respect or accountablitly, instead this young lady is learning that no one can tell her anything and how to sue someone you disagree with.

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