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ACLU Press Release--Paul Kim

by webmaster last modified 2003-05-02 09:11 PM

Student Gets Second Chance at National Merit Scholarship

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Bellevue School District have reached an out-of-court settlement of claims stemming from punitive actions taken against former student Paul Kim for creating and posting a parody of his high school on the Internet.

Under the terms of the settlement, the school district recognizes the right of students to engage in free speech on the Internet. As part of the settlement, the district is issuing a statement apologizing to Kim for the punitive actions taken against him (included at the end of this release). The district will seek to have Kim reinstated as a National Merit finalist. The district also has paid Kim $2,000 in compensation for the loss of his National Merit Scholarship.

In the winter of 1995, Paul Kim, a National Merit finalist with a 3.8 grade-point average at Newport High School in Bellevue, posted a spoof of his high school on a "home page" on the World Wide Web which he created on his own time on a computer at home. Included were links to other Internet sites which had sexually explicit material.

Despite conspicuous disclaimers that the parody was not an official school publication, Newport administrators objected to the use of the school's name on Kim's home page. Kim responded by moving his parody to a less accessible area of the Internet and later taking it off. However, without prior notice to Kim, the principal faxed a letter to National Merit officials withdrawing the school's endorsement of him; the principal also contacted seven colleges to which he had applied and revoked any recommendations. Kim did not receive the Merit scholarship and was not admitted to Harvard (his first choice), though he was ultimately accepted by Columbia University, which he now attends.

"This is an important settlement because it protects the rights of students to engage in free speech on the Internet at home. The district has recognized that the principal had no authority to discipline a student for expressing his opinions on his own time on a home computer," said ACLU-W Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.

Courts have held that public school students have the right to produce their own publications outside of school and distribute them at school. In Burch v. Barker, a 1988 ACLU-W case involving an unofficial publication by students at Renton's Lindbergh High School, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of public school students to publish their own newspapers--even if the content offends or embarrasses school officials.

Volunteer attorneys Lucy Helm and Ward Morrison of Riddell, Williams, Bullitt and Walkinshaw handled the case for the ACLU-W.

Text of School District Apology

The Bellevue School District acknowledges and respects the constitutional right of freedom of speech. The District recognizes that this right extends to students who, on their own time and with their own resources, engage in speech on the Internet. This remains true even when the District does not endorse the content of such speech. The District has no right to punish students who, on their own and with their own resources, exercise their right of free speech on the Internet.

Earlier this spring, Newport High School student Paul Kim created his "Unofficial Newport High School Home Page." He did so on his own time and with his own resources. His home page, which was linked to sexually explicit material, was placed on a public directory. Because of the content of Mr. Kim's home page and the use of the Newport High School name, the District was concerned that some members of the public might view this "unofficial" home page as an "official" District publication. Newport High School Principal Karin Cathay revoked Newport's recommendation of Mr. Kim as a National Merit Scholar. She also contacted each of the colleges and universities to which he sought admission and revoked any recommendations.

Mr. Kim contends that these actions violated his constitutional rights of free speech and due process. After further consideration, the District and Ms. Cathay now recognize that the actions taken were punitive. Unless some members of the public might reasonably confuse Mr. Kim's home page as sponsored by or affiliated with the school, school officials had no right to object to Mr. Kim's failure to remove the home page. The District apologizes to Mr. Kim. In full settlement of this matter, the District has agreed to pay Mr. Kim $2,000 and will seek to have him reinstated as a National Merit Finalist.

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