MySpace, students & free speech

In separate cases, two public school students used MySpace to post disparaging comments about each of their principals. Each of the students was punished with a suspension from school, and each made a federal case out of it, literally, by suing on the basis of alleged infringement of the right of free speech. Both cases arose in the same state, and the same federal appellate court decided appeals in the cases on the same day. The parallels end there, however, because one student succeeded in his First Amendment argument while the other student did not.

The explanation for the different outcomes in the cases boils down to different conclusions as to whether the speech engaged in by the students had at least the potential to be substantially disruptive of school activities, even though both forms of speech occurred off of school grounds. No doubt, in both cases, the targeted principals had bruised feelings, at the very least, but that was not the pivotal consideration.

Student’s Suspension Upheld

In the unsuccessful case, an eighth grader’s suspension was upheld after she created a personal “profile” of her principal in which she went so far as to suggest that he was a pedophile and a sex addict. The court acknowledged that criticisms of school officials, even when in bad taste, are not to be censored. However, more than simply being critical or disrespectful, the language used by the student was highly offensive, potentially very damaging to the principal and the school, and maybe even illegal. The insinuations, even if made in jest, went right to the heart of whether the principal was fit to serve in his position, undermining his authority within the school.

Parody May Be Allowed

By contrast, the same court found that a school had gone too far when it suspended a high school student after he created a profile of his principal on MySpace, using his grandmother’s home computer. In this case, the content of the posting could be described as a parody, as it made fun of the principal because of his large size. The parody used some offensive language, but on the whole it did not disrupt, or have the potential to disrupt, the student’s school, even though it was highly embarrassing for the principal.

It bears emphasizing that in both cases the students enjoyed much more freedom of expression, although not without limits, than they would have had while at school or in school‑sponsored activities. In those settings, as the court noted in one of the cases, there is no First Amendment protection for lewd, vulgar, indecent, and plainly offensive speech, and school officials do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over student speech so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. In short, the lesson for students from these cases could be not only “don’t try this at home,” but also, and more emphatically, “never try this at school.”

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