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Does First Amendment protect students' online speech off-campus?

The Supreme Court declined to take up Tuesday three potentially important test cases of the First Amendment of students engaged in controversial speech on the Internet.

By Staff writer / January 17, 2012



WASHINGTON

The US Supreme Court declined on Tuesday to take up three cases presenting a potentially important test of the free speech rights of minors to engage in offensive and controversial speech on the Internet.

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One case involved an eighth grade student suspended from school after creating a fake MySpace page lampooning her school principal as a sex addict.

The high court also refused to take up two similar cases involving high school seniors disciplined for offensive MySpace postings.

The cases were being closely watched by First Amendment scholars because they were seen as presenting the high court with an opportunity to clarify conflicting lower court rulings on whether school officials may discipline a student for offensive comments made at home and posted on the Internet about fellow students or school officials.

Experts say it is one of the most troublesome issues facing school administrators today.

The honor roll eighth grader at Blue Mountain Middle School in Pennsylvania said she created the parody MySpace profile as a joke. In addition to accusing the principal of engaging in sex in his office and “hitting on students and their parents,” the profile said the principal’s wife looked like a man and that his son resembled a gorilla.

The offensive comments were written on a home computer during a weekend and were shared with the teen’s MySpace friends.

The student was suspended for 10 days and threatened with a civil lawsuit and criminal prosecution by the angry principal.

The girl and her mother apologized to the principal, James McGonigle, and to his family. But Mr. McGonigle wasn’t satisfied.

He asked the state police if criminal charges could be filed. The state police advised McGonigle that he could file a harassment charge, but that it would likely be dismissed. Nonetheless, at McGonigle’s request, the police summoned the student and her mother to the state police station to be questioned about the MySpace profile.

The student and her parents hired a lawyer and sued the Blue Mountain School District, claiming that school officials violated the student’s First Amendment free speech rights by punishing her for opinions she expressed on the Internet in her free time at home.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the school district, but the full Third US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia reversed, ruling 8 to 6 that the prank MySpace page caused no substantial disruption at school.

“Though disturbing, the record indicates that the profile was so outrageous that no one took its content seriously,” the majority judges said.

The court ruled that although the student speech involved a school official, the speech was protected by the First Amendment.

“Neither the Supreme Court nor this court has ever allowed schools to punish students for off-campus speech that is not school-sponsored or at a school-sponsored event and that caused no substantial disruption at school,” the Third Circuit said, ruling for the student.

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