First Amendment

Appeals Court Upholds Suspension of Student Over Internet Bullying


A federal appeals court upheld the discipline of a high school student who created a MySpace page targeted at a classmate that described her as a “slut” with herpes.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., affirmed the suspension of Kara Kowalski, a student at Musselman High School in Berkeley County, W.Va., in a unanimous opinion that comes on the heals of several recent cases heard by federal courts involving student-created websites that ridicule school administrators or fellow classmates, Education Week reports,

In 2005, Kowalski created the page called “Students Against Sluts Herpes,” which featured a photo of the targeted girl, and invited other MySpace users from her school to join. School officials slapped Kowalski with a five-day school suspension and a 90-day suspension from school activities for violating school policies against harassment, bullying and intimidation after parents of the targeted girl complained about the hate site.

Kowalski countered by suing the Berkeley County school district and various officials for violating the First Amendment and punishing her for speech created outside of school.

“Kowalski used the Internet to orchestrate a targeted attack on a classmate, and did so in a manner that was sufficiently connected to the school environment as to implicate the school district’s recognized authority to discipline speech which materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school and collides with the rights of others,” the court said in its decision to uphold the school’s discipline, citing language from Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on student speech rights in school.

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