The American Civil Liberties Union expects the Supreme Court to examine the question “sooner rather than later,” according to Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Still, he is relieved the Pennsylvania students represented by the ACLU have been exonerated after their long legal fights.
“When kids go to school, the parents give up control. But once the kids leave the school, the parents again are the primary custodians and have decision-making authority over those kids,” Walczak said.
With the cases settled, Justin Layshock of western Pennsylvania will receive $10,000 in damages plus legal fees, while an eastern Pennsylvania girl, identified only as “J.S.,” can pursue damages and legal costs.
Layshock in 2005 created a parody that said his principal smoked marijuana and kept beer behind his desk. The Hermitage School District argued that Layshock’s website substantially disrupted school operations. Layshock was suspended, but the suspension was overturned by a district judge and upheld by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
In the other Pennsylvania case, an eighth-grader in the Blue Mountain School District used her principal’s photograph in a fake profile, described him as a pedophile, and mentioned a sex act. The girl was suspended for 10 days.
“Though disturbing, the record indicates that the profile was so outrageous that no one took its content seriously,” a 3rd Circuit majority wrote last year. But the court was divided 8-6.
Such disparities are common around the country as school districts wrestle with how to address online pranks, threats, or cyber bullying.
In the West Virginia case, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond unanimously refused to reinstate Kara Kowalski’s lawsuit against school officials in Berkeley County. She claimed her five-day suspension from Musselman High School in 2005 violated her free speech and due process rights.