PITTSBURGH - Hermitage School District violated the First Amendment free-speech rights of a student when it punished him for creating a parody profile of his principal on the MySpace.com website because the District failed to show that the profile - which was created off-campus - caused any disruption to the school day, a federal judge ruled late yesterday.
"The mere fact that the internet may be accessed at school does not authorize school officials to become censors of the world-wide web," U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry said in his opinion. "Public schools are vital institutions, but their reach is not unlimited."
The ACLU, which represented former Hickory High School student Justin Layshock and his parents, praised the decision. "Judge McVerry's opinion recognized that the First Amendment constrains school districts' authority to punish student speech," said Kim Watterson, a lawyer based in Pittsburgh from the international law firm Reed Smith, who is handling the case on a pro bono basis. "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 Supreme Court's recent decision in Morse v. Frederick supports the ruling in this case, Judge McVerry said, explaining that the Morse court refused to read an earlier Supreme Court case that upheld a school district's punishment of lewd student speech at a school-sponsored assembly "expansively for the proposition that speech may be proscribed simply because it is offensive."
The case began in December 2005 when Justin and several other Hickory High School students posted parody profiles of Principal Eric Trosch on the MySpace.com website. After discovering the website profiles, school officials investigated to find out which students were responsible for their creation. Justin - a senior enrolled in honors and advanced placement courses - admitted that he had created one of the profiles. As a result, school officials suspended him from school for ten days, placed him in an Alternative Curriculum Education program for the remainder of the school year, and prohibited him from attending his graduation ceremony. The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of Justin, arguing that the school district's punishment of him for off-campus speech - Justin created the website at his grandmother's house - violated his First Amendment free-speech rights.
At a January 31, 2006, hearing to determine whether the school district should be temporarily enjoined from enforcing its punishment of Justin pending the outcome of the case, Judge McVerry found that Justin's actions appeared to have substantially disrupted school operations and refused to issue a temporary injunction prohibiting Hermitage School District from punishing him. But McVerry said in the opinion issued yesterday that a review of the full record in the case "demonstrates that the disruption of school operations was not substantial" and that the school district was thus without authority to punish Justin for the website.
"We said after the court's initial refusal to reinstate Justin to school that we felt the District had exaggerated its claim about the disruptiveness of Justin's website, and now, with the benefit of having all the facts, the judge has agreed," said Vic Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director.
The school district permitted Justin to return to his regular classes, and Justin graduated from Hickory High School in 2006. He recently completed his freshman year St. John's University in New York and is spending the summer in Togo as a volunteer at an orphanage there.
The case is Layshock v. Hermitage School District, 2:06-cv-116 (W.D. Pa., McVerry, J.). Judge McVerry has ordered a jury trial to determine whether Justin is entitled to compensatory damages for the school district's violation of his First Amendment rights.
More information about the case Layshock v. Hermitage School District