Student Nets an Apology for Online 'Overreaction'
from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 15, 1995
A former Newport High School student whose sexually explicit Internet home page upset the school's principal has received an apology and a $2,000 settlement from the Bellevue School District.
The settlement, announced yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union, ends a dispute that erupted when Principal Karin Cathey subsequently withdrew the school's endorsement of the student, Paul Kim, as a National Merit finalist.
Cathey also sent faxes to every college and university he had applied to informing them of his action on the Internet.
ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said yesterday's settlement underscores the rights of students to engage in free speech on the Internet at home, as elsewhere, in written and spoken forms.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Kim, now a freshman at Columbia University in New York, was reflective.
"Well," he said from his dorm room, "it's a conclusion, and a happy one."
But, he said, Cathey's reaction was "outrageous."
"To think that a principal would go that far out of her way to endanger one of her students' chances of getting into school . . .," he said.
The dispute began after Kim, then a 17-year-old senior, used his home computer on his own time to fashion a special site on global computer network, the Internet.
The site, called a home page, was titled the "Unofficial Newport High School Home Page," and directed its readers to a special Playboy magazine centerfold site on the World Wide Web, and included other sexually explicit information.
It was information that Kim said yesterday "was really pretty normal," but turned Newport High School on its ear.
When Kim refused to remove his page from the Internet, Cathey retaliated. Unknown to Kim, she withdrew the school's endorsement of him as a National Merit scholar, then issued the faxes to the colleges and universities.
Kim said the principal also rescinded all letters of recommendation that the Bellevue School District had provided to the schools on Kim's behalf.
Kim feared her actions had ruined his chances for admission to some of the nation's top colleges, including Harvard, although he was a top student who carried a 3.8 grade point average into graduation.
When Kim found out what Cathey had done, he was able to gain legal help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, and sued.
Honig said the case should serve as a reminder "that students who learn about computers are going to be creating their own home pages and will be including things they're interested in."
Informed that the settlement had been announced, Cathey was open to offering an apology.
"I try to do the best I can," she said. "If I make a mistake, I'm willing to apologize."
Cathey said she could not say whether she would take the same steps again facing a similar set of circumstances.
"The point is, I did feel that I'd done the right thing," she said. "Beyond that, I think I'll let the district's statement speak for itself."
Bellevue School District spokeswoman Ann Oxrieder said Cathey believed she was protecting the school's reputation, but was under no one's direction to punish Kim by writing the letters.
"This was all very unexpected," Oxrieder said.
"But I think what is relevant now is that we acknowledge that mistakes were made."
In three paragraphs released through the ACLU, the district said school officials, including Cathey, "now recognize that the actions taken (against Kim) were punitive" and that school officials "had no right to object to Mr. Kim's failure to remove the home page" from the computer network.
The district also promised to help reinstate Kim's name as a National Merit Scholarship finalist.
But the decision will be up to the National Merit Scholarship Corp. in Evanston, Ill., which oversees the scholarship program.
Most Merit Scholarships are worth up to $2,000, but some carry far greater value and can pay off annually throughout a student's college career.
Kim will never know whether he would have qualified.
From his room at John Jay Hall at Columbia University, Kim said he will "never completely be able to undo the damage that she did."
"I still don't have my name back. And they can't give me back the time that was wasted or undo the trouble I went through. But I'm glad it's over. And I appreciate the apology," he said.
Kim thanked the ACLU for helping him, but said he never could have known what hit him had it not been for Paul Eickelberg, Columbia University's representative for the Northwest.
Kim said Eickelberg's tipoff gave him the chance to defend himself.
"If it weren't for Mr. Eikelberg, I would not have found out what Ms. Cathey was doing. He told me about the letters. I owe him a lot."
Eikelberg could not be reached for comment.
Although he will remain mired in freshman humanities courses this school year, Kim intends to major in chemistry and already is eyeing graduate school.
"Well, for chemistry there's Cal Tech, even Berkeley. But I wouldn't be surprised if I stayed here. I really like it," he said.
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