PRESS RELEASE: SPLC supports free-speech rights of student suspended for MySpace page

CONTACT:Frank D. LoMonte, Esq.Executive DirectorStudent Press Law Center(703)

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”), the nation’s only nonprofit legal-assistance organization serving student journalists, filed a friend-of-the-court brief today in support of a high-school student punished by his principal for off-campus speech on a non-school website.

In a brief filed with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia in the case of Layshock v. Hermitage School District, the SPLC urged the appeals court to affirm the ruling of the U.S. district court, which found that Justin Layshock’s First Amendment rights were violated when his school suspended him for content on a personal MySpace page mocking his principal. The school claimed that the MySpace page was subject to the school’s disciplinary authority, even though the page was created at a private home outside of school time, and did not threaten violence or otherwise encourage any disturbance at the school.

“If the publication of a student’s speech does not take place on school grounds, at a school function, or by means of school resources, a school cannot punish the student without violating his First Amendment rights,” the SPLC said in the brief.

The SPLC was joined in its amicus brief by the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University. Volunteer attorneys from the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia are handling the appeal for the SPLC and the Pennsylvania Center, led by attorneys Joanna J. Cline and Joseph A. Sullivan. Layshock is represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Reed Smith in Pittsburgh.

Frank D. LoMonte, an attorney and executive director of the Student Press Law Center, explained that traditionally, schools have had no authority to punish off-campus conduct unless the conduct took place at a school-supervised event, such as a field trip. “Because schools often claim the right to control and punish what students say in school-funded newspapers, it is especially important that students retain the full First Amendment rights of citizenship when they are on their own property and on their own time,” LoMonte said. “If schools are allowed to dictate what students say outside of school, then schools will have nearly unlimited ability to prevent negative news stories from coming to light.”

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled in 2007 that Hermitage school officials violated Justin Layshock’s First Amendment rights in January 2006 when they suspended him for 10 days in retaliation for a MySpace profile ridiculing Principal Eric W. Trosch. The district court pointed out that Layshock’s online speech caused no “substantial disruption” — the traditional legal test for censoring speech that takes place on school grounds — because the school’s evidence merely showed that a few students talked about the MySpace page and tried to view it on a school computer.

In the brief, the SPLC and the Pennsylvania Center emphasize that a ruling overturning the district court would set a precedent exposing students to school punishment not merely for jokes and spoofs, but for speaking out on important public issues, even away from school: “Journalism, when practiced at its best, is meant to be provocative; that is, to cause people to talk. If anecdotal evidence that students talked during school hours about something they had read equated to ‘substantial disruption’ — the standard that the School District would have this Court adopt — then even the best journalism (in fact, especially the best journalism) would be subject to disciplinary action(.)”

LoMonte said existing laws are adequate to punish off-campus speech that is threatening or defamatory, without using school authority to settle a private dispute. In fact, Principal Trosch is suing Layshock for libel, which is the remedy Trosch would have against anyone other than one of his students. “If a student is using another student’s off-campus speech disruptively, such as using a classroom computer to look at MySpace pages during class time, then the school can punish the viewer for misusing the computer. But the school can no more discipline the author of an off-campus web page for ‘disrupting’ school than the school could discipline Cingular because students use cellular phones to text-message each other during class,” LoMonte said.

The brief also points out that extending school authority beyond official school functions would intrude on parents’ domain to discipline their children’s off-campus behavior. (In fact, Layshock testified that his parents grounded him and took away his computer privileges even before the school acted.)

“The SPLC thanks Joanna Cline and her team at Pepper Hamilton for making an eloquent and forceful case on behalf of free speech,” LoMonte said. “This brief simply asks the 3rd Circuit to stand fast to the rule recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court for at least the last 40 years: that students are citizens with constitutional rights, and that the state cannot be given a blank check to take away those rights in the name of ‘maintaining order.'”

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics.