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Court rules for students in Pennsylvania speech cases

Tue Jun 14, 2011
Reuters

By Dave Warner

PHILADELPHIA – A federal appeals court here has ruled in favor of two school students who were disciplined in different districts for creating what lawyers called parodies of their principals on the MySpace social network site.

“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit made clear … that schools cannot punish students for out-of-school speech that does not create a substantial and material disruption inside the school,” said the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the students.

“I think the message is louder for school officials than it is for the kids,” ACLU lawyer Witold Walczak, the organization’s Pennsylvania legal director, said Tuesday.

And that message, he said, is that the authority of school officials is less for conduct outside the school than it is for conduct inside.

Terry Snyder, mother of one of the students who was referred to in the legal papers as only “JS,” said she disciplined her daughter for her behavior while she was a student in the Blue Mountain School District, in central Pennsylvania north of Reading.

“I punished her for that,” said Snyder Tuesday. “I’m the one who should have punished her.”

But the school district insisted on a 10-day suspension, and that led to the lawsuit.

The court decision released Monday said Snyder’s daughter created a MySpace profile that made fun of her middle school principal in 2007. The court said the profile contained adult language and sexually explicit references.

In an 8-6 decision, the Circuit Court said the district violated the girl’s First Amendment rights. The girl graduated this year from the Blue Mountain high school, and is headed for college.

In a separate case, the court ruled 14-0 in favor of a student in the far western part of Pennsylvania, Hermitage, a suburb of Sharon.

“We hold,” wrote the court in a case involving then high school student Justin Layshock, who is now in college, “that under these circumstances, the First Amendment prohibits the school from reaching beyond the school yard to impose what might otherwise be appropriate discipline.”

The court said Layshock, in 2005, created what he called a parody profile of his high school principal on his grandmother’s computer. In it, he posed such questions as “birthday” with the response “too drunk to remember.”

The principal thought the remarks were demeaning, and Layshock was suspended for 10 days.

His parents were not able to be reached for comment, but in a 2006 statement attached to an ACLU news release Don and Cherie Layshock said their son was punished by them. They said he apologized to the principal, twice.

“He is sorry and embarrassed by what he calls a dumb mistake,” that statement said.

Hermitage school officials could not be reached for comment, and the Blue Ridge Superintendent, Robert Urzillo, said he had not been in his current job at the time.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)