Saying the freedom-of-speech case against the Hermitage School District in Western Pennsylvania would have an "incredibly far-reaching effect," a federal appeals court judge yesterday questioned whether the district could discipline a student for comments made on the Internet.
"How far can a school extend its reach?" asked Judge Theodore E. McKee during a hearing before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.
The school district disciplined a senior in 2006 for creating a bogus profile of the principal of Hickory High School, near Sharon, on the MySpace.com social networking site.
The parents, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the district on grounds that it violated the freedom of speech of their son, Justin Layshock.
Layshock, now a 20-year-old student at St. John's University in New York City, had used his grandmother's home computer to create the MySpace profile.
McKee noted that the comments were not made in school or during a school-sponsored event. By disciplining Layshock, he added, the district "intruded extraordinarily" into actions taking place in a private home.
In the parody profile, Layshock mocked his principal, Eric Trosch. He made fun of the principal's large build, implied that he drank, and called him a "big steroid freak."
Layshock, who had a 3.3 grade-point average in his senior year, was suspended for 10 days, banned from after-school academic programs, and transferred to an "alternative" education program for troubled students that met for only three hours a day.
He was not able to continue with his Advanced Placement courses and could not graduate with his class.
An attorney for the school district, Anthony Sanchez, said the comments in the profile were "vulgar" and violated the district's civility code. In addition, he said, Layshock "misappropriated" school property by pulling the principal's image off the school Web site to post on MySpace.
Sanchez said the advent of Web sites, blogs, and social networking sites had "blurred the lines" for schools. Classes now are taught online and schools regularly communicate with students and parents via the Internet.
Said Sanchez, "Where the schoolhouse is has changed."
McKee quickly added, "But the First Amendment hasn't."
The judge noted that the MySpace parody was not "disruptive."
Groups involved in First Amendment issues are closely watching the case because it raises critical questions about the rights of students and schools in regard to the Internet.
In 2007, a federal court in Pittsburgh had ruled in the student's favor. That decision was appealed by the district and supported in a friend-of-the-court brief by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Along with McKee, the other two judges on the federal appeals panel yesterday were Jane R. Roth and D. Brooks Smith. McKee was nominated to the court by President Bill Clinton, and Roth and Brooks by President George H.W. Bush.
Roth said for years students have gone off campus to talk about their teachers and principals in unfavorable light without fear of discipline.
"It's rather frightening to think where you can go with that," Roth said. "Before the Internet, these off-school things were not included at all."
McKee added that if schools took action against any student who used vulgarity off-campus, "no one would be left in school anymore."
Witold Walczak, an attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the MySpace profile was "insulting" and "crude."
"But the issue is it's out of school," Walczak said. "The issue is whether school officials have any authority once you leave the schoolhouse gate."
He said the student was not advocating criminal behavior or disruptive action at school.
Walczak said the school could have taken less-punitive measures to deal with the situation.
"They could not have hammered him any harder," he said.
Walczak said that ridiculing teachers is nothing new.
"What the Internet has changed," he said, "is that it is now evident to schools."