Saturday, February 6, 2010

Rulings Leave Online Student Speech Rights Unresolved

     
    Rulings Leave Online Student Speech Rights Unresolved
     
    By David Kravets
     
    February 4, 2010
     
    Do American students have First Amendment rights beyond the schoolyard
    gates?
     
    The answer is yes and no, according to two conflicting federal appellate
    decisions Thursday testing student speech in the online world.
     
    "Ultimately, the Supreme Court is going to have to decide if there ever
    is a time students have full-fledged First Amendment rights," said Frank
    LoMonte, executive director of Virginia-Based Student Press Law Center.
    He's one of the attorneys in the cases the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of
    Appeals decided.
     
    The U.S. Supreme Court has never squarely addressed the parameters of
    off-campus, online student speech, but might soon. So far, lower courts
    appear to be guided by a 1969 high court ruling saying student
    expression may not be suppressed unless school officials reasonably
    conclude that it will "materially and substantially disrupt the work and
    discipline of the school."
     
    In that landmark case, the Supreme Court said students had a First
    Amendment right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. But
    that precedent, which addressed on-campus speech, is now being applied
    to students' online speech four decades later.
     
    One of the cases favoring student speech decided Thursday concerns a
    senior and honors student. In 2005, the Pennsylvania high school student
    was suspended 10 days after he created a mock MySpace profile of his
    principal.
     
    The profile said the principal took drugs and kept beer at his desk. A
    federal judge overturned the suspension, ruling last year the fake
    profile was not created at school and did not create a "substantial
    disruption" at school.
     
    "Public schools are vital institutions, but their reach is not
    unlimited," U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry of Pennsylvania ruled.
    On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed, saying Thursday "the reach of school
    authorities
    <http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2010/02/layshock.pdf> is
    not without limits." (.pdf)
     
    The other case decided Thursday, by a different three-judge panel from
    the same circuit, went against a 14-year-old Pennsylvania junior high
    student. She mocked her principal with a fake MySpace profile. The 2007
    profile insinuated the principal was a sex addict and pedophile.
     
    She was suspended for 10 days. Her parents sued, citing the child's
    First Amendment rights.
     
    On appeal, the the 3rd Circuit noted that teachers complained that,
    among other things, the profile disrupted the classroom because students
    were talking about the profile rather than paying attention to class.
     
    "We decline to say that simply because the disruption to the learning
    environment originates from a computer located off campus, the school
    should be left powerless to discipline the student
    <http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2010/02/snyder.pdf> ,"
    (.pdf) the three-judge circuit panel wrote.
     
    Dozens of similar cases scatter the federal courts. LoMonte, of the
    Student Press Law Center, said the only other appellate decision on the
    matter concerns a Connecticut high school junior punished for calling
    school officials "douchebags" in her blog.
     
    The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld her punishment of
    being forbidden to run for a class office. The court reheard the case
    last month <http://www.splc.org/newsflash.asp?id=2009> . A decision is
    pending.
     
    http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/02/rulings-leave-us-student-speech
    -rights-unresolved
     

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