Social Media 2 School Districts 0

The U.S. Court of Appeals handed down two decisions this week that limited the ability of two Pennsylvania school districts to discipline student based on postings they made on social network sites. In the first case, the Blue Mountain School District disciplined a student for creating a MySpace profile on the weekend that made fun of the student’s middle school principal. According to the court, the profile contained adult language and sexually explicit content. The second case was similar. The student created a MySpace profile for his principal, Eric Trosch. The student responded to a series of questions to set up the profile. Apparently, Trosch is a fairly large man, and many of the answers centered around this theme. For example, when asked “are you a health freak”, the student, as Trosch, responded “big steroid freak.” In response to the question asking for Trosch’s birthday the student responded, “too drunk to remember.” You get the idea. The issue in the first case was the effect of the posting on the school activities. Even though the conduct occurred off campus, the school could punish the students if it reasonably concluded at the time that the conduct would cause a disruption to school activities. If not, then the student’s speech enjoyed First Amendment protection. The court found that the school district did not establish that it was reasonable to conclude that the MySpace postings would disrupt school activities. The court found that the postings, though vulgar, were so juvenile and nonsensical, that no one would take them seriously. The fact that the school blocked MySpace access also helped the student’s cause. In the second case, the school board admitted that there was no threat of disruption, but it argued that because the “speech” originated on campus, it could discipline the student. Of course, the speech “originated” on campus only in the sense that the student cut and pasted a picture of Trosch from the school’s Web site. And that was just too insignificant for the court to allow the discipline. Just a couple of lessons here. First, students – even wise guys – have First Amendment rights. Second, lawsuits are expensive. So it may be wise for a school board to think twice about wading into these waters no matter how irritated the victim of the prank may be.