PHILADELPHIA - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday passed up on hearing cases for the online age - whether schools may censor students who are at home when they create online attacks against school officials and other students.
The justices rejected an appeal from Blue Mountain School District - along with appeals from a school district in western Pennsylvania and a student in West Virginia - involving questions about the limits on criticism from students and where the authority of school officials ends.
The high court decision left standing lower court rulings that the two students from Pennsylvania cannot be disciplined at school for parodies of their principals that they created on home computers and posted online.
In the West Virginia case, an appeals court upheld the suspension of a student who created a web page that suggested another student had a sexually transmitted disease, and invited classmates to comment.
With the case settled, the former Blue Mountain student identified in the lawsuit only as "J.S." can return to court to pursue damages and legal costs.
Blue Mountain School District Superintendent Robert Urzillo said Tuesday that the Supreme Court's decision not the hear the case was "disappointing, unfortunate and wrong," and he shared concern about what the action could signal to others.
"I think it could have a domino affect as far as other schools are concerned," he said. "I think there are clearly limits to free speech," especially when a person isn't telling the truth.
School board President Mary Jo Moss also commented on the news Tuesday.
"At this point, I look forward to the Blue Mountain school board moving past this issue," she said.
In October, Blue Mountain filed its appeal of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal's June 13, 2011, decision that the parodies J.S. and a friend posted were protected by the First Amendment because they were created off school grounds, and that they were unlikely to cause significant disruptions in the school.
That decision overruled a decision by a three-judge circuit court panel that had affirmed the initial ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge James M. Munley that had upheld the 10-day suspension imposed in 2007 by Middle School Principal James McGonigle.
J.S. had posted the profile of McGonigle, which included his picture, at her home on a computer belonging to her parents. Included in the profile were allegations of sexual misconduct.
"Though disturbing, the record indicates that the profile was so outrageous that no one took its content seriously," a 3rd U.S. Circuit majority wrote of the Blue Mountain parody in June. But the court was divided 8-6.
Such disparities are common around the country as school districts wrestle with how to address online pranks, threats or, as in the West Virginia case, cyberbullying.
Lawyers on both sides were disappointed the high court chose not to step into the fray over student speech posted online, as federal court judges have issued a broad range of opinions on the subject.
"We've missed an opportunity to really clarify for school districts what their responsibility and authority is at a time when kids are using electronic media instantaneously, and especially when those messages are so impactful and immediate on the school setting," said Francisco Negron, general counsel of the National School Boards Association. "This is one of those cases where the law is simply lagging behind the times."
The American Civil Liberties Union expects the Supreme Court to examine the question "sooner rather than later," according to Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Still, he was relieved that the Pennsylvania students represented by the ACLU have been exonerated after their long legal fights.
"When kids go to school, the parents give up control. But once the kids leave the school, the parents again are the primary custodians and have decision-making authority over those kids," Walczak said.
In the other Pennsylvania case, Justin Layshock created a parody in 2005 that said his principal smoked marijuana and kept beer behind his desk. The Hermitage School District said it substantially disrupted school operations. Layshock was suspended but the suspension was overturned by a district judge, a three-judge appeals panel and then the full 3rd Circuit Court.
With his case settled Tuesday, Layshock will now receive $10,000 in damages plus legal fees.