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Youth's Parody on the Internet Brings Punishment and a Free-Speech Fight

by webmaster last modified 2003-02-17 06:22 PM

from the The New York Times, May 28, 1995, Sunday, Late Edition - Final



In February, Paul K. Kim, indulging a time-honored urge of graduating seniors, lampooned his high school, poking fun at classmates for "majoring in football" and being preoccupied with sex.

Mr. Kim's lampoon might have faded as quietly as yearbook memories or old corsages were it not for two innovations that set it apart: he published it on the Internet's World Wide Web, in a document he titled the "Unofficial Newport High School Home Page," and he included links to Internet sites that offer sexually explicit material.

Administrators at Newport High School were not amused. Mr. Kim had a grade point average of 3.88, of a possible 4.0, and had scored 1510, of a possible 1600, on the Scholastic Assessment Test. Nevertheless, when the document was brought to the attention of the principal, Karin Cathey, she withdrew her support for him as a National Merit finalist, a move that ended any chance he might have had to get a $2,000 college scholarship.

Then, without Mr. Kim's knowledge, Mrs. Cathey faxed letters to seven universities to which he had applied, including Harvard, Stanford and Columbia, informing them that she was withdrawing the school's endorsement of his National Merit Scholarship and any recommendations that high school administrators might have given him.

Mrs. Cathey informed Mr. Kim on March 28 of her action with regard to the scholarship. But, he says, he did not learn about the faxes to the universities until Paul Eickelberg, an admissions official at Columbia University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, called him the following day to ask for an explanation of the school's disciplinary action.

Although Columbia eventually accepted Mr. Kim, Mr. Eickelberg declined to discuss the case with a reporter, citing university policy protecting the privacy of applicants.

After learning of the faxes, and shocked by the severity of his punishment, Mr. Kim wrote letters to the school district appealing the loss of his chance at a scholarship, and to the American Civil Liberties Union. The A.C.L.U. in turn wrote to school administrators in this affluent suburb just east of Seattle, informing them that Mr. Kim would sue unless his scholarship eligibility was reinstated.

Lucy Lee Helm, one of Mr. Kim's A.C.L.U.-appointed lawyers, said she believed the case to be the first in which the civil liberties union had defended freedom of speech on the Internet, where information goes largely uncensored and is accessible to anyone with a personal computer and an Internet account.

In a recent interview, the 17-year-old Mr. Kim said: "Mrs. Cathey told me that what I had done was immoral. I cried in front of her and told her that she was destroying everything I had worked so hard for."

In asking that Mr. Kim's candidacy for a National Merit Scholarship be reinstated, the civil liberties union argues that Mrs. Cathey violated his constitutional right to free speech. The A.C.L.U. also asserts that her failure to inform him that she had written to college admissions officers violated his right to due process and inflicted emotional distress.

And the damage may already be irreversible, Mr. Kim's lawyers say. Harvard, his first choice, denied him admission. " Paul Kim will never know if the letter from the principal had anything to do with it," Ms. Helm said.

The Bellevue School District declined to comment, saying it was investigating Mrs. Cathey's actions. The A.C.L.U. is awaiting the outcome of that investigation before deciding whether to pursue a suit on Mr. Kim's behalf.

In a telephone interview, Mrs. Cathey said Mr. Kim was not "telling the entire story; there have been other problems." She declined to elaborate but asserted that "each and every college admissions officer" from universities that rejected Mr. Kim had told her that the reasons were other than her letter.

Mrs. Cathey said she was most distressed by Mr. Kim's use of the school's name on a World Wide Web page that included links to sexually explicit material. The World Wide Web is a graphical part of the Internet that allows users to navigate from one site to another by clicking a mouse or other pointing device on a "link" -- sometimes a picture or an icon but most often highlighted words -- that serves as an electronic door to another part of the network. Mr. Kim's links took users to articles on oral sex and masturbation and to a picture of a Playboy centerfold.

In its letter to the school district, the civil liberties union cited several Federal court decisions to argue that school officials had no authority to regulate underground student newspapers or a student's off-campus behavior. A 1988 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, for example, held that five high school students in Renton, Wash., who had circulated an underground newspaper could not be disciplined because of "fears of possible disturbances or embarrassment to school officials."

What Mr. Kim created, on his own time, was essentially a "humorous electronic newspaper," Ms. Helm said. Readers were able to identify the home page as a parody, she said, if for no other reason than that Mr. Kim had included a disclaimer that "no one associated with the school" was responsible for the parody except himself. He also signed his name to the page, Ms. Helm said.

Mr. Kim said that a science teacher had introduced him to the Internet and that he had begun spending his leisure hours exploring the information superhighway with an account he had received from the University of Washington through his membership in an astrophysics club. As a lark, he said, he decided to create his own World Wide Web page.

Shortly after school officials told Mr. Kim that they were upset with his parody, he agreed to ask that it be removed from the high school information part of Yahoo, one of the most widely used Internet directories ( The page was later removed, and Mr. Kim "assumed the matter was behind him," his lawyers said.

Mr. Kim, an outspoken teen-ager, is openly gay, attended the prom with his boyfriend and once directed a gay-pride day at the school. He is gifted in the sciences as well as in creative writing, said Janet Sutherland, an English teacher who gathered a dozen signatures from faculty for a petition supporting him. She also cited his involvement in several activities with the math team, the school choir and student government as evidence of his academic commitment.

"He's got a voice like an angel, and he is something of a poet," Ms. Sutherland said.

But Nancy Potter, the teacher who directs the school's technology committee, said she found it disturbing that Mr. Kim's home page had used the school's name and offered links to material that she viewed as offensive. She said the episode was already having a negative impact at other schools in the district.

"His case is having a chilling effect," Ms. Potter said, "and my concern is that schools will deny students this wonderful educational tool, the Internet."

Mr. Kim, who was born in Korea and wants to be a chemist, lives with his mother and his sister, who is a college student. His mother, who once owned a restaurant, is unemployed. The family gets by on a little bit of savings, he said, but money got tight after his parents divorced a few years ago.

"My mom is in Korea right now raising money for my education through friends and relatives," said Mr. Kim, whose sister has been his de facto guardian when his mother is overseas.

Mr. Kim, recently accepted by Columbia University on a scholarship that would pay half his expenses of about $30,000 a year while he is there, has vowed to press his case against the high school.

"People in authority," he said, "shouldn't be able to enforce their own morality on others."

GRAPHIC: Photo: When Paul K. Kim decided to lampoon his school with a sex-tinged parody on the Internet, he had no idea of the troubles that would follow. Now he is fighting back against administrators who disciplined him. (Therese Frare for The New York Times)


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