THE NATIONAL PULSE
No More Pencils, No More Facebooks
Schools and students battle over out-of-class Internet files
BY WENDY N. DAVIS
WHEN HE WAS A HIGH
school senior, Justin
Layshock created a
fake profile of Eric
Trosch, his school’s
principal, on MySpace.
The parody, published in 2005,
called Trosch a “steroid freak” who
enjoys “chick flicks and porno movies.” It said Trosch liked Playboy
but preferred Penthouse and was
“too drunk to remember” his birthday, according to a version posted
on the Smoking Gun website.
The school was not amused. Authorities of the Hermitage School
District, based in western Pennsylvania, said that Layshock, then 17,
violated the disciplinary code by
engaging in “harassment of a school
administrator,” using “obscene, vulgar and profane language” and posting the school-owned picture of
Trosch without authorization. Layshock was suspended
for 10 days.
He sued the school for allegedly violating his First
Amendment rights. In 2007 a federal district court in
Pittsburgh ruled in Layshock’s favor. Judge Terrence
McVerry said the school had no authority to discipline
Layshock for off-campus speech.
“The mere fact that the Internet may be accessed
at school does not authorize school officials to become
censors of the World Wide Web. Public schools are vital
institutions, but their reach is not unlimited,” McVerry
wrote in Layshock v. Hermitage School District.
The school appealed and as of this spring the case was
pending before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at
Philadelphia, which heard oral arguments in December.
Blogger Avery Doninger with her mother, Lauren, and attorney Jon Schoenhorn.
LAWSUITS LIKE LAYSHOCK’S ARE PLAYING OUT ALL OVER
the country, as students who once might have published
underground newspapers or simply sent handwritten
notes to friends are now broadcasting their opinions
on sites like Facebook and MySpace.
The emergence of these sites has left courts struggling
to figure out the limits of students’ First Amendment
rights in the digital era, where the Internet allows anyone to become a publisher and instantaneously reach
a vast, potentially global audience.
In addition to Layshock’s case, the 3rd Circuit also is
considering a student’s appeal in a lawsuit where a federal court based in Scranton sided with school administrators. In that case, J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District,
a 14-year-old student from Orwigsburg, Pa., was suspended for parodying her principal on MySpace.
Schools argue that they should have the authority to
discipline online speech, regardless of whether students
were at home or at school when they made the comments. That’s because even when students post to
MySpace from a home computer, those statements
are accessible on school grounds by anyone with a
computer or smartphone.
“An underground newspaper is likely to have a limited impact because it’s just distributed in the community. But electronic communications go out to the
world,” says Sean A. Fields, associate counsel for the
Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which filed
an amicus brief in Layshock.
But some civil rights advocates disagree. They argue
that public schools shouldn’t be using their authority to
monitor what students write at home.
“When students misbehave off campus, there are
ample remedies in the real world legal system,” says
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student