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Youngsters who plan on celebrating the beginning of summer vacation by mocking their teachers on MySpace or Facebook would be wise to think twice, or they might be suspended in August for their summer antics. Two middle school students in Pennsylvania were suspended in two separate incidents for creating fake profiles of their principals. Both cases wound up in federal court, with very different results. The first, Layshock v. Hermitage School District, ended in a victory for the student. The Western District of Pennsylvania found that the connection between the student’s off-campus conduct and the disruption that occurred as a result of students trying to access the MySpace page, which called their principal a “big steroid freak” who smoked a “big blunt,” was too attenuated to justify the punishment given to the student.
The second student was not so lucky. In J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, the Middle District of Pennsylvania found that the student’s right to free speech was not violated by her suspension, which was in retaliation for her MySpace page describing her principal as a pedophile. Even though her actions took place outside of school hours and school property, the court said her suspension was justified because school officials “can validly restrict speech that is vulgar and lewd,” even though the court acknowledged that her actions did not create a substantial disruption at her school. J.S. is appealing, with the ACLU on her side.
Courts should hesitate before expanding school officials’ already considerable disciplinary authority to encompass behavior that takes place outside of school hours and off of school property. Consider Safford United School District v. Redding, in which school administrators strip-searched an eighth grade girl trying to find contraband ibuprofen. They already have a great deal of control over students on school property–let’s not give kids the impression they’re growing up in a police state by letting that control bleed into the home setting.
– Liz Kelly
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