In two major decisions on the free-speech rights of students in the Internet era, a federal appeals court ruled that students who ridiculed their principals online could not be punished by school authorities because the speech was created off campus and did not substantially disrupt schools.
The decisions last month by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, came in two closely watched cases involving parodies of school principals created on the MySpace social-networking site.
“It would be an unseemly and dangerous precedent to allow the state, in the guise of school authorities, to reach into a child’s home and control his/her actions there to the same extent that it can control that child when he/she participates in school-sponsored activities,” Chief Judge Theodore A. McKee said in the court’s unanimous opinion in Layshock v. Hermitage School District.
In that case, the school district had disciplined Justin Layshock, who created a fake MySpace profile of his principal on a computer at his grandmother’s house. The fake profile played on the principal’s purported interest in “big” things, such as smoking a “big blunt,” being a “big steroid freak,” having stolen a “big keg,” and having been drunk a “big number of times.”
The court was more divided over the second case, involving a middle school student’s MySpace parody depicting her principal as a sex addict and a pedophile.
“The profile was so outrageous that no one could have taken it seriously, and no one did,” said the majority opinion by Judge Michael A. Chagares. The dissenting judges in the 8-6 ruling said the decision “severely undermines schools authority to regulate students who materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Court Supports Students in Principal Parodies