School Daze

The U.S. Supreme Court announced earlier this week that it would not take the case of Doninger v. Niehoff. The case was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In the case, the court upheld a principal’s decision to discipline a student for the student’s blog posting criticizing the school’s decision to cancel “Jamfest,” a “battle of the bands” type event. In the blog, Doninger referred to the decisions coming from “douchebags in the central office.” Apparently, the next day, the school office was flooded with calls and e-mails demanding that the show go on. As part of the discipline, Doninger was force to withdraw from the election for class secretary. The voters, however, wrote Doninger into the office. The school, however, barred Doninger from taking office, and refused to let her speak at graduation. The Second Circuit upheld the school’s discipline because it found that the blog posts created a “significant risk of disruption.” The intersection of social media and school discipline has sparked a number of similar lawsuits. Earlier this year, the Third Circuit found in two cases that schools violated the First Amendment rights of their students when they disciplined the students for comments the students made on social media sites. In one of the cases, the student created a phony MySpace profile for the principal, answering “too drunk to remember” in response to the profile question “When is your birthday?” In the Third Circuit cases, the courts simply found that the postings did not create a risk of any substantial disruption. Frequently, the Supreme Court will hear cases when there is a “split in the circuits” – that is, when federal appellate courts disagree on a point of law. So one would think this is such a situation. But maybe not. There really isn’t a dispute about the law here. A school can discipline a student for out of school speech if the speech poses a risk of “substantial disruption.” The Second Circuit and the Third Circuit agree on that point. The difference in the decisions is how the two courts view the facts. And that’s not likely to attract the Supreme Court’s attention. But I have a couple of thoughts. In the Second Circuit case, I can’t help wondering, what caused the disruption? The student’s blog post cause or the over reaction by the administration? And am I the only one who just assumes the principal in that case looks like this: