Off-campus Internet speech about school principals protected
In two unrelated cases in Pennsylvania, a federal court ruled in favor of both students and their MySpace rants against their principals. Some call this a victory for student speech, while others lament the future consequences to school administrators and individual educators. See what you think…
Justin Layshock was a seventeen-year-old senior at Hickory High School when he created a fake profile of his principal on his grandmother’s computer. He referred to Principal Eric Trosch as “a big steroid freak” who smoked a “big blunt,” kept a “big keg” behind his desk and had been drunk a “big number of times.” Justin added a photo of Trosch taken from the school’s website.
Justin was suspended for 10 days, removed from the school’s gifted program, restricted from participating in Academic Games and prohibited from attending his graduation. Justin and his parents filed a lawsuit against the school district charging a violation of the First Amendment. His parents also asserted their rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to determine how best to raise, nuture, discipline and educate their child.
Pending trial on the issues, an agreement was reached whereby Justin was reinstated to his regular classes, with all participation in extracurricular activities and permission to walk with his class.
Jill Snyder was in the eighth grade in the Blue Mountain School District. She created a parody of her principal at home on a social networking site. She depicted Mr. McGonigle as a married bisexual man whose interests included “hitting on students and their parents” and designating his e-mail address as “kidsrockmybed.”
Jill was suspended for ten days. She sued to lift the suspension and clear her record. At each step in the case, Jill lost. Then in June, 2011, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for both Justin and Jill. In Justin’s case, the federal court stated “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 when he/she participates in school-sponsored activities, ” Chief Judge Theodore A. McKee said in the court’s unanimous opinion in Layshock v. Hermitage School District.
In Jill’s case, the court held that “The profile was so outrageous that no one could have taken it seriously, and no one did.”
In neither case was disruption at school an issue as required by the seminal student speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. (1969) In January, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear either case on appeal. That means the decisions of the lower courts remain in place. Both Jill and Justin succeeded in challenging their schools’ discipline for their online postings. In Justin’s case, the parties agreed in October, 2012, to dismiss his lawsuit against the school district.
This does not mean a school cannot discipline students for off-campus speech, whether online or off. If the Tinker test is met and the educational environment is disrupted, sanctions, including suspension and expulsion, may be imposed. Cases where actual threats against teachers, students or staff or where bomb threats are made are not protected speech.