School district blames ACLU for student’s defamation claim

PENNSYLVANIA –In a move that legal experts say ”turns libel law on its head,” aschool district has sought permission to sue the attorneys representing a highschool student who sued the district after he was disciplined for posting anonline parody profile of his principal on

Attorneys forthe Hermitage School District in Hermitage, Pa., filed a motion last week tolodge a third party complaint against the American Civil Liberties Unionattorneys who are representing 18-year-old Justin Layshock in his lawsuitagainst the school district.

Layshock was disciplined in December byadministrators at Hickory High School for creating a MySpace profile ofprincipal Eric Trosch on his grandmother’s computer. Among other comments,under ”birthday” the profile said, ”too drunk toremember.” In response to the question, ”in the past month have yousmoked?” the profile said, ”big blunt.”

MySpace.comis a social networking site that allows people to post personal profiles, sharemusic and videos and maintain online journals.

When administratorsdiscovered the online profile, they suspended Layshock for 10 days, placed himin an alternative learning program at school, barred him from participating inschool events or activities and said he could not attend his graduation.

Layshock has since been allowed to return to his regular classes andcan attend his June graduation, according to Donald Layshock, hisfather.

Karen Ionta, superintendent for the Heritage School District,declined to comment.

The motion filed by the school district Feb. 23against Layshock’s attorneys said the ACLU contributed to Layshock’sdamaged reputation because of the publicity the lawsuit elicited.

Adraft of the complaint asks that if the school district loses the case,attorneys for the school district have the opportunity to sue the ACLU and orderthe organization to pay a percentage of the monetary damages awarded to thedefendant.

In other words, if Layshock wins his case, his ownattorneys may have to pay a portion of his damages, said Adam Goldstein, a legalfellow at the Student Press Law Center.

”In theory, the thirdparty complaint creates financial pressure for the ACLU attorneys to lose thecase,” he said.

Goldstein said the filing of the third partycomplaint ”turns libel law on its head” by holding Layshock and hisattorneys responsible for the publicity that followed their filing of thelawsuit against the school district.

”It’s like theschool is saying, ‘Why should we pay for the damages — you’rethe one who made it a news item,”’ Goldstein said.

Ifthe motion is granted, it ”creates a conflict between the Layshocks andtheir attorneys,” said Vic Walczak, one of the ACLU attorneys representingthe family.

At the end of January, a district court judge deniedLayshock’s request for a temporary restraining order against the schooldistrict. The decision was preliminary, according to Walczak, and the trial ismoving forward in the discovery process.

The lawsuit was originallyfiled against the school district because Layshock’s free speech rightswere violated, Walczak said.

Layshock did not use school computersto post the content, and created the profile during non-school hours, hesaid.

The Jan. 31 decision that denied the restraining order saidthat after the MySpace profile was posted, the student body at Hickory HighSchool was ”abuzz about the profiles, who created them and how they couldbe accessed,” and that Layshock’s actions apparently”substantially disrupted school operations.”

But Walczaksaid the school district ”greatly exaggerated” its claims ofdisruption.

”School officials need to understand there arelimits on their authority,” Walczak said. ”They may not likesomething students say on their home computers and post on the Internet, butit’s for the parents to decide what, if any, discipline isappropriate.”

Goldstein said a decision on the schooldistrict’s motion to file a third party complaint may not be decided foranother month.

–by Allison Retka, SPLC staff writer