Court backs students' rights to parody principals online

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Two Pennsylvania students who created MySpace profiles ridiculing their school principals were protected from school district punishment by their right to freedom of speech, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The separate opinions were released the same day by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Philadelphia. In both cases, the students created the online profiles outside of school, one on his grandmother's computer and the other on her parents' computer.

"The one clear rule that emerges from today's opinions is that school officials' authority to punish kids for saying offensive and critical things off campus is limited," said Witold Walczak, who argued the cases and is legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Lawyers for the school systems -- Mercer County's Hermitage School District and Schuylkill County's Blue Mountain School District -- could not be reached for comment.

The appellate court did not agree on the extent to which "off-campus" speech is protected, though. In a unanimous opinion in the boy's case, Chief Judge Theodore A. McKee wrote that the court did not want to send "an 'anything goes' signal to students, faculties and administrators of public schools."

In a dissenting opinion in the girl's case, Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote that the majority view could severely undermine a school's authority to regulate students who disrupt school from outside school grounds.

"The majority's approach does not offer a promising way forward," Judge Fisher wrote. "Internet use among teenagers is nearly universal ... the line between 'on-campus' and 'off-campus' speech is not as clear as it once was."

Two three-judge panels of the court had previously split on the cases, ruling that the boy's speech was protected and the girl's was not. The losing lawyers in each case asked the entire court to reconsider.

In the first case, high school senior Justin Layshock sued the Hermitage School District after he was suspended for 10 days in 2006 for creating what he called a "parody profile" impersonating his school principal. The MySpace page largely consisted of jokes about the principal's size.

The principal eventually discovered Mr. Layshock's profile, saying that it was "degrading," "demeaning," "demoralizing," and "shocking." In addition to suspending Mr. Layshock, the school district banned him from extracurricular activities and excluded him from his graduation ceremony.

The appeals court ruled unanimously Monday that the disciplinary actions violated Mr. Layshock's First Amendment right to freedom of speech, determining that self-expression "that originated outside of the schoolhouse, did not disturb the school environment and was not related to any school-sponsored event" could not be punished.

"It would be unseemly and dangerous precedent to allow the state, in the guise of school authorities, to reach into a child's home and control his/her actions there to the same extent that it can control that child when he/she participates in school sponsored activities," Judge McKee wrote.

Mr. Layshock, who graduated on time and attends college in New York, is "thrilled" by the decision, Mr. Walczak said.

"[He] continues to be surprised by what a big deal his little case has turned into," Mr. Walczak added. "He is just about to graduate, studying for his last exam."

In the second case, an unidentified eighth grader sued the Blue Mountain School District after she was suspended for 10 days in 2007 for creating a profanity-laced profile impersonating her school principal. The profile did not list the principal's name, but posted his official school district photograph, and referred to him derisively, using the MySpace handle "kidsrockmybed."

Monday, the appeals judges divided on the case, ruling 8-6 that the suspension violated the girl's right to freedom of speech.

"Though disturbing, the record indicates that the profile was so outrageous that no one took its content seriously," Judge Michael Chagares wrote. Both parties agreed that the profile did not cause a "substantial disruption" in school, a benchmark often used in such cases.

Nor could the MySpace profile have led school officials to reasonably expect such a disruption, "despite the unfortunate humiliation it caused," the judge wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote that the First Amendment protects students' off-campus speech "to the same extent it protects speech by citizens in the community at large."

But in a dissenting opinion joined by five others, Judge Fisher wrote that the majority had underestimated the harm caused by the MySpace profile, as well as "the serious nature of allegations of sexual misconduct" leveled at the principal.

Such harassment "has a tangible effect on educators," Judge Fisher wrote.


Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413. Lauren Rosenthal: lrosenthal@post-gazette.com .


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