Complaining about teachers and spreading rumours about the principal are nothing new. But in the age of social networking sites, the complaints have legs well beyond the life of just whispered gossip.
Two cases in the 3rd Circuit, each with similar underlying facts that resulted in seemingly conflicting decisions, highlight the problems of what to do about “my principal sucks” Web sites, The Legal Intelligencer reported.
One lawsuit involved a fake profile created about the principal saying he was a “big steroid freak” and “smoked a giant blunt.” The second lawsuit involves a MySpace profile that described the students’ principal as a pedophile and a sex addict.
Two different panels of judges decided the cases — one said punishing the students for activities outside of school violated their First Amendment rights; the panel addressing the other lawsuit said that students could be punished for inappropriate speech if it has the potential to cause a substantial disturbance at school.
Various parties and groups are asking the 3rd Circuit to throw out both decisions and hold new arguments so a consensus can be reached. Schools and students are currently, proponents for a rehearing argue, in limbo over what they can and cannot do.
From a purely legal standpoint, it is truly difficult to decide how these cases should be decided.
As an initial note, we assume that there are questions as to the veracity of a statement that a principal is a pedophile or a steroid user. If the statements are false, it might mean the principal could sue for libel (obviously not an idea way to solve the problem, but one that is available nonetheless), but it should not have an impact on how the school can punish the student.
There are exceptions to free speech, and maintaining an atmosphere that is positive for education and does not disrupt that process have often been reasons courts have allowed schools leeway when dealing with student speech.
We think that the important question is if the speech causes (though not just has the potential to cause) a disturbance at school. And, those involved in the actual disturbance are the ones to be punished. In other words, what happens at school can be punished; what does not, cannot.
That could of course lead to seemingly unfair results — students causing a problem at school by looking at the offensive site or arguing about it could get in trouble, whereas the author of the post, should he be sitting quietly and minding his own business, could escape detention.
But that is the only legally fair way to handle things — students should not be able to be punished for things they do that are outside of school just because a bigger audience is now available. Technology does not change the First Amendment, it just makes its implementation a little murkier.
It is admittedly odd to be talking about First Amendment protection for speech that might not be true — but really it’s two separate issues. There’s the speech, and there’s the activity of having the right to speak outside of school at all and be protected from punishment at school.
We imagine, however, that should one of the principals sue the student and his parents for libel, they will all wish an afternoon of detention would have been allowed.
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