First Amendment

3rd Circuit Rules for Students Who Skewered Principals with Fake MySpace Profiles

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A federal appeals court has ruled on behalf of students disciplined for creating fake MySpace profiles that portrayed their principals as a heavy drinker in one case and a sex addict in the other.

The en banc decisions limit the authority of schools to punish students for offensive speech off campus, according to the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Witold Walczak, who argued for the students. He was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 8-6 (PDF) for the eighth-grade student in the sex addict case, J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, the Legal Intelligencer reports. The vote was unanimous in the second case (PDF), Layshock v. Hermitage School District.

In J.S., the court rejected the school district’s argument that it could suspend the eighth grader for her MySpace post portraying the principal as a pedophile and sex addict. The fake profile did not create a disturbance at the school, according to the majority opinion. A ruling upholding the suspension “would vest school officials with dangerously overbroad censorship discretion,” the majority said.

In Layshock, the court ruled for Justin Layshock, who was a 17-year-old senior when he created a MySpace profile portraying his principal as a big drinker, a smoker of a ‘big blunt” and a “big steroid freak.” The school had suspended Layshock, placed him in an alternative education program, despite his classification as a gifted student, and barred him from extracurricular activities.

The school district in Layshock had not asserted that the MySpace page was disruptive, and instead had argued Layshock could be punished for off-campus lewd speech. Because disruption was an issue in J.S., it presented more difficult legal questions, the Legal Intelligencer says. The J.S. case dealt with the Supreme Court’s decision on student armbands, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Layshock dealt with a later Supreme Court case on vulgar speech, Bethel School District v. Fraser.

Prior coverage: “Students Disciplined for Fake MySpace Profiles of Principals Get 3rd Circuit Rehearing” “3rd Cir. Creates ‘Chaos’ with Conflicting Rulings on Student MySpace Principal Parodies”

ABA Journal: “No More Pencils, No More Facebooks”

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