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 Paul Kim free expression case

Paul Kim: From Honor Student to Online Rabble Rouser

In the spring semester of 1995, Paul Kim, a talented high school senior, was counting down the days to graduation from Newport High School in Bellevue, Washington. An accomplished jazz vocalist and National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, Kim was looking forward to selecting the college of his choice: Harvard, Stanford and Columbia were all on his short list. But a sophomoric practical joke played on his classmates over the Internet would soon throw his college plans into question, and eventually lead to an unprecedented First Amendment controversy.

Using a private Internet account at home, Kim created an "Unofficial Newport High School Home Page" on the World Wide Web. A parody of the numerous school Web sites that were just beginning to germinate throughout the Web, Kim used the site to lampoon the habits and hobbies of his classmates. For example, he poked fun at students for "majoring in football" and being preoccupied with sex. In a collection of Web links entitled "Favorite Subjects of Newport High School Students," Kim prominently listed a category regarding sex, which included hyperlinks to a Playboy centerfold and an article about masturbation. As a precaution against people taking his site too seriously, he repeatedly used language to explain that the site was "unofficial" and intended merely for amusement. Kim also submitted the site to Yahoo, which included the site in its directory of Web links.

In the weeks following the release of Kim's Web site, administrators at Newport High eventually became aware of it. Though they strongly objected to the content, they initially informed him that they would take no action against him. But when the school began to receive criticism from outside parties, Kim was called in by officials and accused of misusing the school's name. Not wanting his tasteless prank to become a detriment to him, Kim decided to remove the site listing from Yahoo and deactivate the homepage altogether.

This action was not enough to satisfy the school principal, Karin Cathey. Cathey concluded that disciplinary measures were necessary, so she proceeded to withdraw her recommendations that were submitted on behalf of Kim to various universities, as well as to withdraw her endorsement of him as a National Merit Scholarship finalist. Kim was only informed of these measures when a college admissions officer telephoned him to inquire about the sudden change. Though Kim was eventually admitted to Columbia University, his application to Harvard was denied, and his $2,000 Merit Scholarship award was revoked. He soon felt it was necessary to take legal action against the school district.

Counseled by attorneys from the ACLU, Paul Kim filed a complaint against the district, charging that the school principal had "acted with reckless disregard of Mr. Kim's rights" of free expression. Citing the Tinker case, the ACLU argued that Paul's actions were protected because they occurred off- campus and did not interfere with educational activities. "High schools certainly may not exercise more control over off-campus behavior than over on-campus conduct, and such control must be based on the standard of substantial interference with the normal operations of the school," they wrote in their complaint to the school district.

The district, recognizing that the precedents of both Tinker and Hazelwood would likely support Kim's case, chose to settle out of court in December 1995. School officials issued a public apology that acknowledged they had violated Paul Kim's First Amendment rights and ignored due process. "The district," the statement noted, "has no right to punish students who, on their own time and with their own resources, exercise their right of free speech on the Internet." The district also reimbursed him the $2,000 scholarship that was lost, and vowed to have Kim reinstated as a National Merit Scholar. Though the out-of-court settlement did not create official legal precedent, it became the first of a series of cases that would reinforce the rights of students to publish Internet content off-campus without fear of administrative retribution. logo
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updated Sat. June 26, 2021

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