Two Pennsylvania teens should not have been disciplined at school for MySpace parodies of their principals created from off-campus computers, a federal appeals court ruled June 13.
The postings, however lewd or offensive, were not likely to cause significant disruptions at school and therefore are protected under previous Supreme Court case law on students’ rights to free speech, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found.
“Today’s court decision states that you cannot punish students for off-campus speech simply because it offends or criticizes [school officials],” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represented both students.
However, six judges who dissented in one case said they feared salacious online attacks against school officials would go unpunished.
“It allows a student to target a school official and his family with malicious and unfounded accusations about their character in vulgar, obscene, and personal language,” Judge Michael Fisher wrote in the ruling involving the Blue Mountain School District in eastern Pennsylvania.
In that case, an eighth-grade girl created a MySpace page using an actual photo of the principal with a fake name, and purported that it was posted by a 40-year-old Alabama school principal who described himself—through a string of sexual vulgarities—as a pedophile and sex addict. The internet address included the phrase “kids rock my bed.”