A U.S. District Court judge ruled that Hermitage School District violated a former student's First Amendment rights when it punished him for setting up a lowbrow parody profile of his principal on MySpace.com.
Judge Terrace F. McVerry ruled on Tuesday that the school district was not authorized to suspend the former high school senior, Justin Layshock, after he created the crude Internet profile of then-Hickory High School Principal Eric Trosch.
Mr. Layshock, now a 19-year-old freshman studying French at St. John's University in New York, created the profane profile of Mr. Trosch in December 2005 while using the social networking Web site MySpace.com at his grandmother's house.
"The mere fact the Internet may be accessed at school does not authorize school officials to become censors of the World Wide Web," Judge McVerry wrote. "Public schools are vital institutions, but their reach is not unlimited."
The judge stressed that schools have the right to control matters within the scope of their activities, "but they must share the supervision of children with other equally vital institutions such as families, churches, community organizations and the judicial system."
As part of his order, Judge McVerry also ruled that Mr. Layshock may seek compensatory damages in a jury trial.
Soon after the profile appeared, the school launched an investigation to find out who had created the fake profile.
After Mr. Layshock stepped forward as the creator of the profile, school administrators suspended him for 10 days, placed him in an alternative curriculum education program and barred him from attending his high school graduation.
Administrators reasoned that Mr. Layshock's lewd description of the principal had significantly disrupted proceedings at the school and caused substantial disturbance in school operations.
Mr. Trosch, now principal of Hermitage Middle School, said previously that he broke into tears when he talked to fellow administrators and teachers at the school about the profile.
In a court deposition, Mr. Trosch said his daughter, a 10th-grader at the school, first alerted him about the profile after she came home and was upset about it.
"It's degrading. It's demeaning. It's shocking," he said in the deposition. "It's shocking when a profile was forged about you."
Mr. Layshock, who is volunteering this summer at an orphanage in the small West African nation of Togo, learned of the decision yesterday when he called his mother.
"He was surprised," Cheryl Layshock said.
"The school definitely abused their power and went beyond their jurisdiction," she said.
Sara Rose, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who assisted the Layshocks in their case, said this was the fourth time that Pennsylvania school districts had unsuccessfully tried to intervene in off-campus Internet activities of their students.
"You would hope after the fourth time that school districts would learn that after students leave school they can't play parent," said Ms. Rose.
Appropriately, the courts have put the brakes on the amount of control schools can have over their students' lives outside the classroom. The ACLU has tons of horror stories where they've taken school districts to court to defend the rights and freedoms of individual students.
Organizations like these help everyone to defend their individual liberties, but we have a responsibility to use them wisely. I hope Justin will exercise better judgment in the future and keep his criticisms in good faith, and not succumb to cruelty.