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Supreme Court Declines Cases on Student Internet Speech

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take up major appeals involving student free speech rights on the Internet.

One appeal encompassed two cases decided in June 2011 by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia.

The appeal in Blue Mountain School District v. Snyder (No. 11-502) involves a 3rd Circuit decision that said 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 3rd Circuit held in the Blue Mountain case that a Pennsylvania middle school student's 2007 MySpace parody depicting her principal as a sex addict and a pedophile was so outrageous that no one could have taken it seriously.

In a companion case, Layshock v. Hermitage School District, the 3rd Circuit court overturned the discipline of a Pennsylvania high school student who in 2005 had created a fake MySpace profile of his principal on a computer at his grandmother's house. The phony 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."

The 3rd Circuit court found that the profile did not create a substantial disruption in school, and the court rejected the school district's arguments that other facts created a nexus between the parody and the school.

The joint appeal on behalf of the Blue Mountain and Hermitage school districts told the justices that the cases presented "important and urgent First Amendment questions regarding the scope of school officials' authority over student online speech."

"At the moment, school officials are stuck between a rock and a hard place," the appeal said. "They are responsible for protecting students and teachers from online harassment, but in doing so, they might trigger a lawsuit from a student claiming that his or her First Amendment rights have been violated. School officials cannot afford to wait any longer for a definitive answer."

Meanwhile, an appeal in Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools (No. 11-461) involved a West Virginia student who was disciplined for creating a MySpace page targeting not an administrator but another student at her high school.

Kara Kowalski was a student at Musselman High School, in Berkeley County, W.Va., in 2005 when she created a MySpace page that suggested another female student had herpes. School officials concluded that Kowalski had created a "hate" website in violation of school policies against harassment, bullying, and intimidation. She was suspended from school for five days and given a "social suspension" of 90 days, meaning she was barred from certain school activities, including the cheerleading squad.

Kowalski sued under the First Amendment, but both a federal district court and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., upheld school administrators. The 4th Circuit said in a July 2011 decision that "school administrators are becoming increasingly alarmed by the phenomenon" of harassment and bullying, and that "where such speech has a sufficient nexus with the school, the Constitution is not written to hinder school administrators' good faith efforts to address the problem."

In her appeal to the Supreme Court, Kowalski said, "This court has never addressed the appropriate First Amendment test for student speech that occurs entirely off school premises."

The justices declined on Jan. 17 to hear the cases without comment or recorded dissent.

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