Student Internet Speech

A Pennsylvania high school senior and his parents successfully sued his high school when he was disciplined for creating a vulgar website. The student created a parody MySpace website that appeared to be a profile of the school principal. MySpace is a popular Internet website on which users can list their personal interests, post photographs, and share frequent updates with others. The student, working on a computer at his grandmother’s home during nonschool hours, created the MySpace site so that it appeared to have been created by the principal. On the parody site, the principal recounted his own intoxication, lewd conduct, and vulgar behavior.

The student showed the website to other students during school hours on a school computer on at least one occasion. The student also accessed the site at least one other time at school, in an attempt to delete it permanently. The facts of the case were complicated by the fact that at least two other similar MySpace sites ridiculing the school principal were created by other unknown students at the same time.

During the several weeks when the websites existed, the school administration considered shutting down all classroom computers, but did not do so. On several occasions, mild disruptions resulted from ¬students clustering at classroom computers. The investigation into the creation of the websites disrupted the schedules of the administrators, teachers, and students. Eventually, the school computer technicians managed to shut down the sites by reporting them to MySpace.

The student was suspended, banned from school activities, transferred to the district’s alternative school, and excluded from graduation ceremonies. After he sued, the student and the school resolved some issues, and he was permitted to return to regular classes and to attend graduation.

In the lawsuit, a federal judge held that the school had illegally infringed on the student’s free speech rights. In so finding, the judge focused on the fact that the bulk of the student’s conduct, including all of his efforts to create the website, occurred off of school grounds. Pennsylvania state and federal courts repeatedly emphasize the broad authority of school officials to control conduct in schools. But because school attendance is mandatory in Pennsylvania, and schools are government run, any school limits on students’ free speech has the potential to be unconstitutional.

In drawing the line between a student’s right to free speech and a school’s need to maintain order and authority, courts focus on location-typically, schools may not regulate a student’s conduct off of school property outside of school hours. Schools may regulate student speech during all regular school hours and on field trips, at sporting events, and at any school sponsored event. Otherwise, student speech that occurs off of school grounds and outside of school hours can be cause for discipline only if it causes substantial disruption of school operations.

In the student’s lawsuit, the federal judge decided that the mere fact that the Internet may be accessed at school does not authorize school officials to “censor” student speech online. Noting that schools must “share the supervision of children with other, equally vital institutions, such as families, churches, community organizations and the judicial system,” the judge found that the student’s misuse of MySpace simply did not occur at the school and did not substantially disrupt the school’s operations.

This is a controversial decision and one that may not be a clear indicator of what other judges might do in the future in similar cases. It is entirely possible that a different judge might decide that a student has engaged in improper speech at school, during school hours, if a website created by the student is accessed by other students at the school.

The Internet continually broadcasts the websites, blogs, postings, and other online content that a student can legally create at home. It is possible that students could be legally disciplined, even expelled, for such speech if a rebroadcast at the school is found to be in school speech. Furthermore, in every case, the existence of a substantial disruption at the school almost ensures that the courts will find discipline appropriate.

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