PENNSYLVANIA — A school district violated the First Amendment by suspending a student who created a satirical profile of his principal on MySpace.com, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled July 10.
“The mere fact that the Internet may be accessed at school does not authorize school officials to become censors of the World-Wide Web,” the judge, Terrence McVerry, wrote in his opinion. “Public schools are vital institutions, but their reach is not unlimited.”
Justin Layshock, a senior and honors student at Hickory High School, said on a mock MySpace profile, which he made using a computer at his grandmother’s house in December 2005, that his principal, Eric Trosch, used drugs and kept a beer keg behind his desk.
The profile came to the attention of school faculty when it was opened in a school computer lab.
After a disciplinary hearing with the superintendent, Layshock was suspended for 10 days, placed in an alternative curriculum program “typically reserved for students with behavior and attendance problems who are unable to function in a regular classroom,” and barred him from participating in the graduation ceremony, according to court documents.
The judge declared those punishments unconstitutional because the profile was not created at school or during school hours, and even when opened at school, it did not cause a “substantial disruption” — referencing the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
“The school’s right to maintain an environment conducive to learning does not trump Justin’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression,” his opinion reads.
“Judge McVerry’s opinion recognized that the First Amendment constrains school districts’ authority to punish student speech,” said the student’s attorney, Kim Watterson, in a press release. “School officials cannot punish student speech simply because they find it offensive; they must demonstrate that the speech caused a substantial disruption to the school day.”
The judge said the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” ruling concerned speech in a school-sanctioned and school-supervised activity and so did not apply to this case. “Because the [Supreme Court] Justices unanimously agreed that Morse involved school-related speech, Morse is not controlling of the instant matter,” he wrote.
But he did cite Justice Samuel Alito’s concurring opinion to counter the school district’s contention that Layshock’s Web site undermined the school’s educational mission.
“Justice Alito’s concurrence in Morse clarifies that Morse does not permit school officials unfettered latitude to censor student speech under the rubric of ‘interference with the educational mission’ because that term can be easily manipulated,” McVerry said.
McVerry ordered a jury trial to decide if Layshock may be compensated for the infringement of his First Amendment rights.
“We’re really pleased with the judge’s reaction,” said Cherie Layshock, Justin’s mother. “We’re glad that when he got all the facts he could see that there wasn’t a disruption in the school.”
Justin Layshock, now a rising sophomore at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, is volunteering this summer at an orphanage in Africa and could not be reached for comment.