The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 3, 2012

Student's profane tweet stirs free-speech debate

INDIANAPOLIS — Austin Carroll was fighting insomnia when the Indiana teenager turned to Twitter for relief and casually dropped the F-word multiple times, apparently to demonstrate to his followers that the expletive would fit almost anywhere in a sentence.

But his middle-of-the-night profanity quickly cost him. A few days later, Carroll was expelled from high school over his foul-mouthed lapse, even though the word wasn't directed at anyone, and he says the tweet didn't involve his school.

Now the 17-year-old senior is at the center of a debate over how closely school officials may monitor students' online activities when they aren't in class or even on school property, an issue that has frustrated administrators and confounded courts.

Carroll insists he made the tweet on his own time using his own computer, making it none of the school's business. But school officials in the small city of Garrett, about 20 miles north of Fort Wayne, contend that the teen used either his school-issued computer or the school network. The details could spell the difference between a routine school discipline case and a broader First Amendment dispute.

School officials say they cannot discuss a student's disciplinary record and will not say why Carroll was expelled March 19 from Garrett High School, a 600-student school where younger students are given iPads and older ones are sent home with MacBooks.

His mother, Pam Smith, believes it was in retaliation for her son's previous misbehavior, which included a suspension earlier in March for violating the dress code by wearing a kilt to school and a suspension last fall for using the same expletive on a school computer. Then on March 16, her son tweeted the F-word again.

Carroll, who did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press, told Fort Wayne television station WPTA that he was just trying to be funny.

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