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Tweet spurs free-speech debate

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, Austin 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 senior, 17, 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.

Austin insists he made the tweet on his own time using his own computer. But school officials in the small city of Garrett, about 20 miles north of Fort Wayne, contend 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 will not say why Austin 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.

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

"If my account is on my own personal account, I don't think the school or anybody should be looking at it. Because it's my own personal stuff, and it's none of their business," he told the station.

First Amendment and students' rights experts agree with him. If Austin was using his own computer and network to send the tweet, the school's action was "an incredible overreach and overreaction that arguably raises not only First Amendment but Fourth Amendment issues," said David Hudson, a scholar at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Austin will be allowed to graduate with his class but will miss his prom, a punishment Hudson said seems excessive.

"If they expelled every student that cursed, they won't have graduation," he said.