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Free Speech or Suspension: Student Insults Teacher on Facebook

A California teenager who called one of his teachers a "douche bag" on Facebook has gotten away with it -- but not before the ACLU had to get involved.

Writing on his Facebook page, 15-year-old Donny Tobolski called his biology teacher at Mesa Verde High School:

"a fat ass who should stop eating fast food, and is a douche bag."

When school officials found out, they suspended him for cyberbullying. However, the boy's mother called the ACLU. It then wrote a letter to the school pointing out that disciplining a student for exercising free speech, so long as the speech isn't wreaking havoc with school functions, is unconstitutional.

Armed with that new information, as well as the possibility of a lawsuit, the school backed down, erasing the suspension from Tobolski's record.

The boy's mother, Kristina Dunlap, was relieved. She said her son "was just venting like the rest of us used to do, sitting on the grass at lunchtime. Students will always talk about their teachers."

She admits his Facebook posting was inappropriate. "I don't want him to talk about any kind of authority figure that way," but she said it wasn't grounds for discipline that would stay on his record. "He didn't pose any kind of danger," she added.

ACLU attorney Linda Lye said the Supreme Court upheld a student's right to nondisruptive free speech during the Vietnam protests of the 1960s.

When a student's words are directed at a classmate or a teacher, Lye said, courts have upheld discipline if the speech threatens violence or constitutes bullying or harassment.

"Schools have an obligation to provide a safe school environment," Lye said. But "petty comments, insults, ordinary personality conflicts ... don't rise to the level of harassment."


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