Court Tosses Charges Over Student’s MySpace Criticism of Principal

By Mark Walsh — May 14, 2008 1 min read
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The Indiana Supreme Court has thrown out a finding of child delinquency for a middle school student who posted a vulgarity-laced tirade against her principal on MySpace.

A student identified in court papers as A.B. was charged with harassment for the messages aimed at Shawn Gobert, her principal at Greencastle Middle School in Greencastle, Ind., including one that said “die ... Gobert ... die.” In an apparent dispute over body piercings during the 2005-06 school year, the student contributed one vulgar tirade to a MySpace page that was purportedly the principal’s, but had been set up by another student, according to court papers. And A.B. herself created a MySpace “group” with a vulgar title that included the principal’s name.

While a state trial court found A.B. delinquent on several harassment charges, a state appeals court reversed, ruling that the student’s speech was protected by the First Amendment.

In a May 13 decision, the Indiana Supreme Court also ruled for the student, but on different grounds. In a unanimous opinion, the court said the student’s message on the fake principal’s page was not truly directed at Gobert because he was not among the MySpace subscribers authorized to view it.

As for the vulgar MySpace group created by A.B., the court said that the group page was accessible to the general public, and there was a reasonable expectation that it would come to the principal’s attention. But under Indiana’s harassment statute, a person breaks the law only by communicating a message with “the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person but with no intent of legitimate communication.”

“The content of the posting presents strong evidence that A.B. intended her ‘group’ page as legitimate communication of her anger and criticism of the disciplinary action of Mr. Gobert and the Greencastle Middle School against her friend, the creator of the private ‘profile,’ ” the court said. “We also observe that it is even more plausible that A.B., then 14 years old, merely intended to amuse and gain approval or notoriety from her friends, and/or to generally vent anger for her personal grievances.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.