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Pennsylvania districts lose cases over MySpace parodies

Brian Bowling
| Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A federal appeals court ruled on Monday that two Pennsylvania school districts violated the First Amendment by punishing students who created offensive "parody" profiles on MySpace.

The ruling did not address the question of when districts can punish students for off-campus speech.

"It would be an unseemly and dangerous precedent to allow the state, in the guise of school authorities, to reach into a child's home and control his/her actions there to the same extent that it can control that child when he/she participates in school-sponsored activities," the 14 judges of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a unanimous decision upholding a lower court ruling in the lawsuit brought by a Mercer County student against Hermitage School District.

Justin Layshock, then 17 and a senior at Hickory High School, created a "profile" of his principal in December 2005 that essentially made fun of his weight. The district moved Layshock from the gifted student program to one for students with behavioral problems, banned him from extracurricular activities and also banned him from his graduation.

The school district subsequently reversed those actions and paid Layshock $10,000 to settle the lawsuit, but still appealed U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry's 2007 ruling that it violated Layshock's First Amendment rights.

Hermitage schools Superintendent Dan Bell was not available for comment. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association couldn't be reached for comment.

The second case involved an Eastern Pennsylvania student who sued the Blue Mountain School District in Schuylkill County. Her parody used her middle school principal's photo but a fake name and said he was a school principal in Alabama. The profile described him as a pedophile and sex addict.

The more offensive nature of the profile, even though it was less accessible than Layshock's parody, apparently caused an 8-6 split in the judges that still ruled Blue Mountain violated the student's free speech rights.

Vic Walczak, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued both cases before the 3rd Circuit, said the cases make it clear that when a student publishes something offensive on the Internet, the right response is to call in the student and his or her parents.

"In 99 percent of the cases, that's going to do the trick," he said.

Arthur Hellman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said the rulings don't end the idea that districts can sometimes punish students for comments made off campus, but also don't set a standard for when that might be the case.

"It's obvious the court struggled (with the decisions)," he said. "It took them almost a year after oral arguments."

However, the two rulings "are a pretty strong affirmation of students' rights to free speech off campus," Hellman said.

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