In a major pair of decisions on the free speech rights of students in the Internet era, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday that students who ridiculed their principals online could not be punished by school authorities because the speech was created off campus and did not substantially disrupt schools.
The decisions by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, came in two closely watched cases involving parodies of school principals created on the MySpace social-networking site.
The full 3rd Circuit court paid close attention to the facts of each case, ruling unanimously for one student and 8-6 for the student in the other.
"It would be an 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," Chief Judge Theodore A. McKee said in the court's unanimous opinion in Layschock v. Hermitage School District.
In that case, the school district had disciplined Justin Layshock, who created a fake MySpace profile of his principal on a computer at his grandmother's house. The fake profile played on the principal's purported interest in "big" things, such as smoking a "big blunt," being a "big steroid freak," having stolen a "big keg," and having been drunk a "big number of times."
Judge McKee said that the Hermitage district conceded that the profile did not create a substantial disruption in school. And the court rejected the district's arguments that other facts created a nexus between the parody and school.
For example, the district had argued that Layshock copied a photo of his principal for use in the parody from the district's Web site. But the judge compared today's Web parodies to those of an earlier era and an older technology. He cited a 1979 federal appeals court decision that overturned the discipline of students who had distributed a satirical print journal about their school, even though some articles had been drafted on school typewriters and the publications had been stored in a school closet.
"Here, the relationship between Justin's conduct and the school is far more attenuated," the judge said. "We do not think that the First Amendment can tolerate the school district stretching its authority into Justin's grandmother's home and reaching Justin while he is sitting at her computer after school in order to punish him for the expressive conduct that he engaged in there."
The 3rd Circuit court was more divided over the second case, involving a middle school student's MySpace parody depicting her principal as a sex addict and a pedophile. The fake profile said the principal had interests such as "being a tight-ass," "spending time with my child (who looks like a gorilla)," and "hitting on students and their parents."
The majority in J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District noted that the student created the parody profile off campus, and did not even open it up for all MySpace users to see.
"The profile was so outrageous that no one could have taken it seriously, and no one did," said the majority opinion by Judge Michael A. Chagares.
The dissenters in the Blue Mountain case said the decision "severely undermines schools' authority to regulate students who materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school."
"In doing so, it allows a student to target a school official and his family with malicious and unfounded accusations about their character in vulgar, obscene, and personal language," said Judge D. Michael Fisher. "I fear that our court leaves schools defenseless to protect teachers and school officials against such attacks and powerless to discipline students for the consequences of their actions."
Fisher, along with some judges who wrote concurring opinions in the two cases, noted the ever-growing impact of social-networking sites and mobile communications devices. He questioned whether the "schoolhouse gate" noted in the U.S. Supreme Court's seminal student speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, was defined as a physical barrier anymore.
"The majority embraces a notion that student hostile and offensive online speech directed at school officials will not reach the school," Judge Fisher said. "But with near-constant student access to social networking sites on and off campus, when offensive and malicious speech is directed at school officials and disseminated online to the student body, it is reasonable to anticipate an impact on the classroom environment."
Sean Fields, the associate legal counsel of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the decisions were disappointing and that they would "seriously undermine the authority of school administrators."
"It's more than a little troubling that these decisions send the message to students that the basest form of ridicule will be elevated to the level of protected political speech," said Hayes, whose group filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the school districts.
Witold Walczak, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said in an interview that while the two rulings were "clearly pro-student speech decisions," they did not mean that school officials could not punish students for off-campus speech such as bomb threats or threats to teachers.
"What these decisions say is that for purely critical or offensive off-campus comments, school officials cannot use their official authority to discipline or punish them," said Walczak, who argued both students' cases. "It doesn't mean you can't talk to them or to their parents. And in 99 percent of the cases, the lessons will be learned."