The November 2010 issue of neatoday contained an article entitled “Cyber-Speak No Evil”. It’s a rather frightening article about whether schools have the legal right to punish students for maligning teachers and/or principals on internet sites like MySpace or Facebook. The courts have been unclear in their decisions as to whether students should be allowed to exercise their First Amendment right on their social media pages.
In J.S. v Blue Mountain School District, a ruling was reached this February by a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that a Pennsylvania school district was not violating the free speech of a middle school student who was suspended for “posting on MySpace a fake profile of her principal that used lewd language to describe him as a pedophile and sex addict”. The decision was based on a Supreme Court’s decision reached 40 years ago, the Tinker decision, which upheld the suspension of students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The court ruled that, just as this situation 40 years ago caused a disruption of the school, the posting of the MySpace profile was potentially disruptive because it “undermined the principal’s authority” and caused “the school community” to question “his character”. Well, hallelujah! Sounds like the right decision to me!
However, a very different decision was made by another panel of three judges of the Third Circuit in Layshock v. Hermitage Schools. On the same day the Pennsylvania decision was reached, this panel ruled that Justin Layshock, a high school student could not be punished for portraying his principal as a “drunk”, a big whore, and a “drug user” on his fake MySpace page. This court ruled “that such speech was protected by the First Amendment because school officials failed to show that the profile was potentially disruptive”. Are you kidding me? Talk about giving students the license to destroy a principal or teacher’s reputation! How unfair is that?
Well, all 14 judges from the Third Circuit court reheard the cases last June and are expected to reach a new unified decision on these two cases. But these are not isolated incidents. Here are some more that I quote directly from the article, and they will astound you:
* Earlier this year, a federal court in Florida ruled that a high school student couldn’t be punished for creating a Facebook group entitled “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met,” and inviting other students to “express [their] feelings of hatred.”
* The Federal Second Circuit has held that it was not a violation of the First Amendment when a school district disciplined a student for calling administrators “douche bags” on her personal blog.
* In California, a federal court held that a student could be disciplined for posting on YouTube a slide show depicting the murder of her middle school English teacher.
* And a Federal Court in Washington upheld the 40-day suspension of a high school student for videotaping his teacher in class and then posting the video on YouTube with sexually-suggestive graphics and music.
Technology is a wonderful and scary thing. Laws must be in place which protect innocent people from those who would use technology to bully or malign. I understand the need to protect people’s First Amendment rights. But what about the rights of those whose reputations can be destroyed by a student with an ax to grind? I hope and pray that the courts get this right for all of our sakes.