Saturday, April 23, 2005

Punishing Bloggers for Free Speech

State ACLU Aids Student Blogger New Britain Teenager Was Disciplined For Profanity On Website
April 23, 2005
By LORETTA WALDMAN, Courant Staff Writer

NEW BRITAIN -- A New Britain High School drum major is seeking the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut over disciplinary action taken against him for posting a profanity-laced entry in an online journal last month.

Daniel Gostin, 18 and a senior at the high school, was stripped of his drum major position, given an in-school suspension and barred by school officials from participating in music-related extracurricular activities and performances for the remainder of the year. Lori Rifkin, an ACLU staff attorney representing Gostin, contends the actions violated Gostin's free-speech rights. In a letter Wednesday, she asked schools Superintendent Doris Kurtz to reinstate Gostin as drum major, expunge his disciplinary record and allow him to resume participating in musical activities.

The posting "contained no threats nor did it contain any other statements which would interfere with the ability of school administrators to maintain order and discipline at the school," Rifkin wrote in her April 20 letter. Gostin posted his entry on livejournal.com, a website that allows users to create personalized pages, record thoughts as they might in a diary and share them with other readers. The posting was apparently brought to the attention of school officials by another individual without Gostin's knowledge, Rifkin said.

At Gostin's request, she said she would not release a copy of the March 9 posting, which was largely directed at band director Charles Lunn. Rifkin characterized it as a "typical teen-age rant" over a decision Lunn made to cancel several band activities.

She called it "the type those of us who are adults might have sent when we were teenagers had there been an Internet."

The New Britain police share that assessment but prompted by an earlier, more threatening entry also posted on livejournal.com, have launched an investigation. Another member of the high school band is suspected of being the author of the threatening entry, but police have not been able to establish whether there is any connection between the earlier entry and Gostin's entry.


In it, the writer promises a "homicidal spree" and "long, torturous death," presumably targeting fellow members of the band. It is not likely, however, that the investigation will result in criminal charges, Sgt. Gregory Wright, a spokesman for the police department, said Friday.

Because of a nearly 2-month lapse between the time school officials learned of the earlier posting and when police heard about it, electronic evidence was destroyed or deleted, Wright said.

"That's why there is no probable cause to make arrests," Wright said. Kurtz, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Ron Jakubowski and New Britain High School Principal Thomas Reale could not be reached for comment. Gostin and his parents have declined to discuss the case.

Daniel's father, Peter Gostin, is a former Republican alderman. Those who know Daniel Gostin describe him as a thoughtful and very religious young man who is not the type usually associated with trouble. In fact, Gostin was so filled with remorse about his online diatribe, he voluntarily removed it from the site about 12 hours after posting it, Rifkin said. But the episode was not the first time the student, best known for his musical talent and politically conservative views, has chosen to air his opinions in a large public forum. About a week before the 2004 presidential election, during a New Britain High School football game half-time show, Gostin shocked onlookers by holding up a Bush-Cheney campaign sign as he led the band on the field.

Gostin was reprimanded for the stunt and told to apologize.In the latest case, Gostin appears to have case law on his side. In her letter to Kurtz, Rifkin sites an "unbroken string" of recent court decisions rejecting attempts by school administrators to punish students for offensive off-campus Internet speech.

"Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," Rifkin wrote, quoting a passage from one of those decisions - Tinker v. DesMoines School District. Student speech that takes place off school grounds is accorded even greater First Amendment protection, she said. Rifkin has asked Kurtz to respond to her letter by Monday. With only 10 weeks remaining in the school year and the next scheduled performance of the band set for April 30, time is of the essence, she said. If school officials deny the request, Rifkin said she is prepared to take Gostin's case to court.

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