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Lawsuits test free speech in internet era

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia must decide whether a Pennsylvania middle school can suspend a student who, at home on her own time, created a lewd MySpace page aimed at her principal.

The web page, which used a fake name but an actual photo of the principal, was purported to have been 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."

The case, argued in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, raises broad issues about the limits of school discipline for off-campus behavior that affects the atmosphere at school. A rash of similar cases have surfaced across the country, with mixed rulings, but so far none has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. (That could change, however, pending the outcome of this 3rd Circuit case.)

The American Civil Liberties Union argues that students enjoy free-speech rights off-campus that protect such parodies, however vulgar.

"Parents give up some control at the schoolhouse gate," Mary Catherine Roper, an ACLU lawyer in Pennsylvania, told the appeals court judges. "When the students walk back out, they again are under control of their parents."

However, a lawyer for the Blue Mountain School District in Schuylkill County, Pa., said the eighth grader’s actions in March 2007 caused a disturbance that reverberated inside school and harmed the principal. Students were buzzing about the site for several days, and school administrators quickly became aware of it.

"Quite frankly, this could have affected his career," school board lawyer Jon Riba argued. "At the very least, it creates an impression that this man is unstable."

Roper called the site clearly satiric–and juvenile.

But Judge D. Michael Fisher was not so sure, noting the number of sexual deviants who apparently seek out liked-minded people online.

He nonetheless cautioned Blue Mountain about the price it might pay for winning the case.

"Do we want our school districts to become internet police?" Fisher asked.

The Supreme Court has said that students enjoy some free-speech rights, such as the right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, while rejecting the right to lace a school speech with sexual innuendo.

In 2007, the high court upheld sanctions against a student from Alaska who carried a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" sign at an off-campus school outing, reasoning that the student was promoting illegal drugs.

In a case nearly identical to the Blue Mountain case, a different 3rd Circuit panel is weighing a MySpace parody of a western Pennsylvania school principal that was argued in December. And in New York, the 2nd Circuit has upheld school discipline in two off-campus internet speech cases after finding the disruption at the schools was "foreseeable."

Terry Snyder, the 53-year-old mother of the Blue Mountain student, said she fought the case because she did not want her daughter to miss 10 days of school. But she also believes the discipline should have been hers to dole out.

"I believe it’s up to me to discipline her for her actions, her untoward actions, at home," Snyder said. "What she did was definitely wrong. Fortunately, she is a good kid most of the time."

The three appellate judges did not indicate when they would rule.


3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

American Civil Liberties Union


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