U.S. Supreme Court won't hear appeals in students' online rants

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The legal battles between two Pennsylvania students and the school districts that punished them for impersonating their principals in derogatory online profiles have come to an end.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused the school districts' request to hear the two cases and another of a West Virginia teenager who disparaged a fellow student online.

The Supreme Court decision upholds earlier rulings from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the Pennsylvania students from June 2011.

The court had ruled that each district breached the student's freedom of speech when they were punished for actions that occurred off school grounds and on home computers.

Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania who represented the students in both Pennsylvania cases, said the Supreme Court's decision to not take the cases was a win for his clients.

The lower court, he said, has "recognized more than other courts that school officials' authority has to be more limited over what kids do outside school."

"If you give school officials the authority over kids' speech outside school, it's like inviting the principal to the dinner table to discuss child-rearing with the parents," he said.

Mr. Walczak said he was surprised the court didn't take on the case considering the support it received by "national school powers."

But it's just a matter of time before the high court weighs in.

"There is no question that the Supreme Court is going to need to decide one of these cases in the near future because everyone is struggling to figure out where the lines are, and that's not a good thing," he said.

In December 2005, Justin Layshock, a senior at Hickory High School in Mercer County, created a "parody profile" of his principal, Eric Trosch, on Myspace.com at his grandmother's home.

Mr. Trosch said the profile, which mocked his size and made references to drinking beer and smoking marijuana, was "hurtful and disrespectful."

The Hermitage School District claimed the spoof had disrupted school and subsequently suspended the then 17-year-old for 10 days and transferred him to the school's Alternative Education Program.

Mr. Layshock and his parents filed a federal lawsuit against the district in January 2006 claiming his rights were violated when he was punished for constitutionally protected speech made at home. Mr. Layshock was later allowed to return to his regular classes, and his computer use was monitored by faculty.

The 3rd Circuit's unanimous ruling in favor of Mr. Layshock, who has since graduated from St. John's University and is working for an insurance company in Western Pennsylvania, carried $10,000 in damages plus legal fees.

Mr. Layshock declined to comment, but his lawyer said he intends to use the money to help pay off his home.

"He's thrilled that he's now part of the law books," he said.

In the second case, an eighth-grader sued the Blue Mountain School District in Schuylkill County after she was suspended for 10 days in 2007 for creating a profanity-laced profile impersonating her principal.

The profile did not list the principal's name, but used his school district photograph, indicated that he was a sex addict and a pedophile and referred to him using the MySpace handle "kidsrockmybed."

The appeals court ruled 8-6 in favor of the teen, with Judge D. Michael Fisher noting that the "line between 'on-campus' and 'off-campus' speech is not as clear as it was once."

Francisco Negron, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, which wrote a "friend of the court brief" encouraging the Supreme Court to take the case, said the high court needs to set a precedent to explain how the landmark rulings of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District apply to the digital age.

"Part of what we were saying to the Supreme Court was that the school districts need some clarity about what their responsibility and authority is around the issue of free speech, particularly in an area when students are more and more engaging in social media communications," he said.

In the Tinker case of 1969, a group of students decided to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War. A school administrator learned of the plan and adopted a policy to ask the students to remove the bands or face suspension.

The students filed suit and the Supreme Court ruled that students do not "shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate" as long as the opinions do not materially and substantially interfere with the operation of the school and collide with the rights of others."

Mr. Negron said Internet actions can be "impactful and immediate on the school setting" in a way that didn't exist when Tinker was established. The law, he said, is "lagging behind the reality of communication" today.

"The question that the court is going to have to grapple with is what the schoolhouse gate means in the 21st century."

Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985.


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