The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has finally ruled that school officials cannot discipline students for ridiculing their principals on MySpace during their hours away from school.
As I discussed last year in the blog here, the Court agreed to re-hear both cases en banc (with the Court's entire 14 judges considering the case). In the first, J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, the judges were sharply split, voting 8-6 to overturn a 10-day suspension of a student who posted a fake profile on MySpace that portrayed the principal as a pedophile and a sex addict.
The majority opinion rejected the school district's argument that such lewd speech—even when it occurs off campus—may be punished if it targets school officials and has the potential to create a disturbance at school. Such a determination "would vest school officials with dangerously overbroad censorship discretion."
The Court found that the student had created the fake profile "as a joke," and took steps to make it private so that it would be accessible only to her and her friends.
While it was "indisputably vulgar," it was also "so juvenile and nonsensical that no reasonable person could take its content seriously."
The Court concluded that lewdness and a connection to the school community was not enough to satisfy the Tinker and Fraser tests. In order for the Court to rule for the school district, the explained that it would be forced to "adopt a rule that allows school officials to punish any speech by a student that takes place anywhere, at any time, as long as it is about the school or a school official, is brought to the attention of a school official, and is deemed 'offensive' by the prevailing authority."
The second case, Layshock v. Hermitage School District, was less controversial. The Court unanimously held that the school district waived any so-called Tinker defense that focuses on speech that causes disturbances at school.
The majority in that decision held that 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."