Pa. school district policy that punishes students for speech made off-campus is ruled unconstitutional

PENNSYLVANIA — A school district policy that allowedadministrators to punish students for material they produced off-campus wasdeclared unconstitutional Feb. 26, marking a significant victory for a formerstudent in his two-year battle for recognition of his First Amendmentrights.U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose granted summary judgmentto Jack Flaherty and his parents, finding portions of the Keystone Oaks SchoolDistrict’s Student Handbook of 2000-2001 to be “unconstitutionallyoverbroad and vague” and stating that schools must limit their authorityto punish students to school and school-sponsored events.According tothe Pittsburgh American Civil Liberties Union, the controversy began whenFlaherty posted four messages on an Internet message board devoted to highschool volleyball in western Pennsylvania. The site was not sponsored oraffiliated with the school district. A statement from the ACLU said the messageboard contained “mostly trash talk.” One of Flaherty’smessages said that an opposing player’s mother, who teaches at KeystoneOaks, was “a bad art teacher.” When administrators wereinformed of the postings, Flaherty was kicked off the volleyball team,prohibited him from attending any after-school events and refused access toschool computers for any purpose. Flaherty filed suit with the help ofthe ACLU, and the court initially reinstated him to the volleyball team andrenewed his extra-curricular and computer privileges. The volleyball coach quitin protest of the decision and the school refused to hire a replacement, forcingthe team to forfeit the final nine games of the season. In November2002, the school district agreed to pay $60,000 in damages and attorney fees topartially settle the lawsuit. The case continued to decide the constitutionalityof the student handbook.Flaherty challenged the portion of the handbookthat allowed for punishment of student speech that school officials deemed to be“inappropriate, harassing, offensive or abusive.” These terms werenot narrowly defined and the ability to punish the “offensive”student speech was not limited to school grounds or school-sponsoredevents.The District Court ruled in strong support of non-schoolsponsored student speech. Judge Ambrose said, “I find the student handbookpolicies at issue to be unconstitutionally overbroad and vague because theypermit a school official to discipline a student for an abusive, offensive,harassing or inappropriate expression that occurs outside of school premises andnot tied to a school-related activity.”Keystone Oaks PrincipalScott Haggy testified that he believed he could discipline a student forbringing “disrespect, negative publicity, [or] negative attention to ourschool and to our volleyball team.”Judge Ambrose said thatHaggy’s reasons were not sufficient to punish Flaherty or any otherstudent and that policy’s terms were too vague.The court cited the 1969U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent CommunitySchool District, which says that schools may only punish students for speechat school that will cause a “material or substantial disruption to theschool day.”Attorney Kim Watterson, who represented Flahertypro bono at the request of the ACLU, said she was pleased with thefavorable ruling.Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pittsburgh ACLU,also praised the ruling. “The court has sent a clear message thatthe First Amendment limits school officials’ authority to punish studentswho post non-threatening but offensive or critical statements on the Internetfrom their home computers,” Walczak said in a statement. “If schoolsobject to what students are doing at home, their recourse is to contact theparents, not punish the students.”

Flaherty v. Keystone Oaks School District 2003 WL 553545 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 26, 2003)

Read previous coverage