In two long-awaited decisions by the Federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the court held that two school districts lacked authority to discipline students for off-campus, online speech. Although the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the students in the cases, asked the court to hold that schools may never discipline students for off-campus, online misconduct, the court refused to do so. Accordingly, schools may continue to discipline students for misconduct that occurs off campus and online if it causes or reasonably might cause a substantial disruption of school activities. The court did, however, suggest some important limits on school officials’ authority to discipline students.
The facts of the two cases, Layshock v. Hermitage School District and J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, were similar. In each case, a student created a fake profile parodying his or her high school principal on MySpace. The profiles were created on personal computers outside of school. The profiles included lewd and vulgar language and the profile in J.S. suggested that the principal engaged in sexual misconduct, including sexual relationships with students. Each student created the website using the photograph of the principal from the school district’s website. The students shared the profiles with their classmates. The principals, who were the subjects of the MySpace parodies, were upset by the parodies, but there was little evidence of disruption in the schools. After the websites were discovered, both students were suspended from school, among other discipline. The students each filed lawsuits alleging that the suspensions and other discipline violated their First Amendment rights to free speech.
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