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Orlando prep school sues mother for criticizing it on blog

The New School of Orlando calls comments defamatory, libelous

Sonjia McSween

Unhappy with her daughter's private school, Sonjia McSween created a blog to warn other parents.

The unexpected result: The New School of Orlando Inc. slapped McSween with a defamation lawsuit to stop her from publishing and talking about the school and force McSween to pay damages.

Some say it's a case of censorship. Others say First Amendment rights have nothing to do with it.

"Lots of people, private and public, can have thin skins," said Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates digital free-speech rights and maintains a legal guide for bloggers. "People need to get used to this new world where everyone has a soapbox and can use it."

The Internet is what gives the New School case a new dimension.

"It's one thing for a disgruntled parent to go around bad-mouthing you to her small group of friends," said Lyrissa Lidsky, a law professor at the University of Florida whose expertise includes First Amendment and Internet-speech law. "It's another to bad-mouth you to the world at large on the Internet."

Also known as New School Preparatory, the kindergarten-through-eighth grade school alleges that McSween deliberately told unflattering lies, causing enrollment to drop. It alleges defamation, libel, slander and interference with business relations.

McSween contends that she was just sharing what happened to her and her daughter, Logan.

"When I created this Web site, I did not do it with malice," said McSween, 28, a single mother who lives in west Orange County. "I created it with disappointment about my experience."

David Simmons, an Orlando attorney representing New School, said the lawsuit, filed in late October, was prompted by McSween's postings suggesting a possible kickback scheme between a psychologist and the school. Simmons described that allegation as "ludicrous" and "damaging."

"We've only asked that she tell the truth if she's going to make any kind of statements," Simmons said. "No one should be able to hide under the cloak of freedom of speech by making false statements."

The problem started after Logan, now 7, began kindergarten at New School Preparatory in 2005. She withdrew in January and attends another private school. McSween said she spent thousands on tuition, books and registration for the school to "mistreat" her daughter.

"My daughter went from being a happy child to a child who was scared to make a mistake because she was not perfect," McSween said.

The lawsuit says McSween posted "false and otherwise libelous remarks" alleging that students at the Marks Street school were belittled, exposed to "extreme stress" and "dictatorial conditions." She further alleged that the school told parents how to run their homes and threatened parents for speaking negatively about New School Preparatory.

Finally, McSween accused the school of rejecting lower-income students, labeling single parents as "problem families" and shunning mixed-race and disabled children, according to the suit.

The 120-student school, founded in 1995 and run by Morris and Karen Sorin, a husband-and-wife team of educators, denies those claims. Karen Sorin referred questions to her attorneys.

Lawrence Walters, an Altamonte Springs First Amendment lawyer unfamiliar with the New School case, said lawsuits often are designed to stifle criticism by forcing defendants to back down to avoid expensive litigation.

Land developers, for example, have filed actions known as "strategic lawsuits against public participation" -- or SLAPP -- to stop environmental activists or neighborhood groups trying to block a project.

Several legal experts, however, said it's unusual for a school to sue a parent over speech.

"We've seen efforts by larger companies and business entities directed at critics," Walters said. "The idea is if we can hit them with a defamation action, maybe they'll stop criticizing."

Daniel O'Malley, a partner with Simmons' firm of deBeaubien, Knight, Simmons, Mantzaris & Neal, said that's not what the New School case is about.

"Of course we want her to stop because of the damage suffered by my client. . . . We're not talking about opinion here."

McSween plans to meet with a lawyer Tuesday.