Court: off-campus speech protected

PENNSYLVANIA ‘ A school district policy that allowed administrators to punish students for material they produced off-campus was declared unconstitutional Feb. 26, marking a victory for a former student in his two-year battle for recognition of his First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose granted summary judgment to Jack Flaherty, finding portions of the Keystone Oaks School District’s Student Handbook of 2000-2001 to be ‘unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.’ Ambrose stated that schools must limit their authority to punish students to school grounds and school-sponsored events.

Flaherty filed suit in 2001 after he was kicked off the school volleyball team for posting on an Internet message board that a Keystone Oaks teacher was a ‘bad art teacher.’

Under the handbook, school officials found his comments to be ‘inappropriate, harassing, offensive or abusive.’ However, the court ruled the school could not punish Flaherty because the posting occurred off school grounds and on a message board unaffiliated with the district.

In November 2002, the school district agreed to pay Flaherty $60,000 to partially settle the lawsuit.

Witold Walczak, legal director of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the ruling saying, ‘If schools object to what students are doing at home, their recourse is to contact the parents, not punish the students.’

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