Teen sues school administrators, says her free speech rights violated

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – A Burlington teenager sued two top school officials Monday, saying they violated her constitutional rights by removing her as class secretary because she used offensive slang to refer to administrators on an Internet blog.

Avery Doninger, a 16-year-old student at Lewis Mills High School, wants to be immediately reinstated as class secretary. She also wants a new election for class officers for the upcoming school year, when she will be a senior, and a chance to give the candidate speech she was forbidden from giving to her classmates.

Doninger’s mother, Lauren, filed motions for temporary and permanent injunctions on her daughter’s behalf against school Principal Karissa Niehoff and Region 10 Superintendent of Schools Paula Schwartz, according to court documents filed Monday in New Britain Superior Court.

Niehoff removed Doninger as the class of 2008 secretary and banned her from running for re-election after discovering the teen used a pejorative term when she referred to unnamed school administrators in an online journal.

Avery Doninger posted the message to www.livejournal .com, which is not associated with the school, from a home computer.

“I don’t like what Avery wrote,” Lauren Doninger said. “(But) she had the right to do it and it was up to me, not the school, to determine whether or not there had been a consequence.”

At the time, Avery Doninger was criticizing the administrators over the cancellation of a school event known as Jamfest. Doninger said she helped organize the music event for months.

She acknowleged Monday she regrets using the offensive slang. But the teen said she believes her rights have been violated and that she’s been singled out by administrators.

“This is something that I felt was really necessary to stand up for, because you really have to stand up (for) the little things about democracy, the little things that make democracy really work in the big world,” she said.

Several weeks after Avery Doninger posted the message in April, Niehoff demanded she apologize to the superintendent of schools, tell her mother about the blog entry, resign from the student council and withdraw her candidacy for class secretary, the lawsuit alleges.

While Doninger apologized and reported the incident to her mother, she refused to resign. Niehoff then “administratively removed” her from the post, the lawsuit said.

Besides being banned from running for re-election, Doninger was barred from giving a speech to her school class, the lawsuit claims.

Niehoff told WVIT-TV in May that school leadership positions are a privilege, not a right.

“When kids are in a position of privilege, there are certain standards of behavior we expect them to uphold,” she told the TV station.

“Our position stands for respect. We’re just hoping kids appreciate the seriousness of any communication over the Internet.”

Jon L. Schoenhorn, the Doningers’ attorney, said Connecticut school districts have no authority to punish students for private online postings that do not use school resources.

Schoenhorn said last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling restricting student speech rights does not harm his client’s case because it is narrowly tailored.


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