PENNSYLVANIA — A U.S. District Court judge ruled Sept. 11against a middle-school student who was suspended for 10 days for creating aMySpace page mocking her school principal as a pedophile and sex addict.
Jill Snyder and her parents filed a complaint in federal court inMarch 2007, when Jill was 14, alleging Snyder’s First Amendment rights were violated. Theparents also claimed their Fourteenth Amendment rights as parents were violatedby the Blue Mountain School District in determining how ”best to raise,nurture, discipline and educate their (child).”
Snyder’s attorneys argued the First Amendment protected her actionsbecause they were ”non-threatening, non-obscene and a parody.”
Judge James M. Munley wrote in his opinion that the arguments fell intothree categories: 1) Were Snyders’ First Amendment rights violated by theschool?; 2) Were the district’s policies unconstitutionally vague andoverbroad?; 3) And did the school violate the Snyder’s parentalrights?
Munley rejected all three arguments citing Tinker v. Des MoinesIndependent Community School District, which says students and teachers donot ”shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expressionat the schoolhouse gate.” The judge found Tinker inapplicablebecause the MySpace page was not considered political speech, unlike thepolitical protest censored by school officials in Tinker.
Munley instead analyzed Snyder’s speech under three different studentspeech rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court: Bethel School District v.Fraser, which said public schools could ”prohibit the use of vulgarand offensive terms in public discourse;” Hazlewood School District v.Kuhlmeier, which said ”educators do not offend the First Amendment byexercising editorial control over the style and content of speech so long astheir actions are reasonably related to legitimate, pedagogical concerns”
and Morse v. Frederick, which ruled that school officials could censor astudent’s speech that was ”reasonably viewed as promoting illegaldrug use.”
Munley wrote that Snyder’s speech was ”more akin to the lewdvulgar speech addressed in Fraser. It is alsoakin to the speech that promoted illegal actions in the Morse
He went further on to say that in Snyder’s case ”there can beno doubt that the speech used is vulgar and lewd.”
The MySpace page described Principal James S. McGonigle’s generalinterest as ”detention, being a tight ass, riding the fraintrain, spendingtime with my child (who looks like a gorilla), baseball, my golden pen, fuckingin my office, hitting on students and their parents.”
On the ”About me” section, it described McGonigle as
”your oh so wonderful, hairy, expressionless, sex addict, fagass, put onthis world with a small dick PRINCIPAL.” A school district photo ofMcGonigle was used to identify him. A customized Web address was made for theprofile page, as well: www.myspace.com/kidsrockmybed.
While Munley acknowledged there was a blur when it came to on andoff-campus speech, he applied a 1976 district court case that upheldschool jurisdiction over off-campus student speech. Munley cited Fenton v.Stear, where the court ruled ”when a high school student refers to ahigh school teacher in a public place on a Sunday by a lewd and obscene name insuch a loud voice that the teacher and others hear the insult, it may be deemeda matter for discipline in the discretion of the schoolauthorities.”
Munley ruled that the school was not in error when they suspended Snydersince she brought copies of the MySpace page to the school. And therefore, theschool did not violate her parents’ rights since Snyder’s”actions were not merely personal home activities.”
Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union ofPennsylvania and the Snyders’ attorney, said she plans to file an appealwith the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
”We thought the decision was quite out-of-line with the law,”Roper said. ”The judge has essentially ruled that a student who cursesabout a teacher any place, any time can be suspended for that. We don’tfeel that is consistent with the Constitution or good sense.”