How far has student free speech come since Mary Beth and John Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt wore black armbands to school in Des Moines to protest the Vietnam War and got suspended as though they were common hooligans? Now, online-savvy teens get in trouble for rudely mocking their elders on social networking sites, and the ensuing court battles rattle—and redefine—free-speech boundaries.
In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, Justice Abe Fortas famously wrote for the Supreme Court in 1969 that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” But in an internet-driven world, where’s the schoolhouse gate?
Appeals court rulings from Pennsylvania recently held that students were wrongly disciplined at school for online nonsense they created on private computers. But that’s only the first question on a confounding test.
In one case, Justin Layshock got suspended for 10 days, sent to alternative education, and banned from graduation for a fake MySpace profile he created on his grandmother’s computer in December 2005. (That was before Facebook took over the world.)
Layshock, then 17, cut and pasted his high school principal’s photo from the school district website and set up the page as though it belonged to him: a drunken, pot-smoking “steroid freak” and worse.
Three other students produced nastier MySpace profiles of the principal, according to the June 13 ruling in Layshock’s case from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But only Layshock apologized—or got punished. That’s some heavy lesson in irony.
The judges said Layshock’s First Amendment rights were violated, given that his foolishness was done off-campus and didn’t disrupt school.
The court ruled similarly in the case of a student identified as J.S. She was in eighth grade in 2007, got cited for dress code violations, then used her parents’ home computer on a Sunday night to create a lewd MySpace profile with her principal’s photo but a phony name.