Bloomberg News

Student Social Media Speech Cases Rejected by U.S. High Court

January 17, 2012

Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider how much free speech protection students have for items they post on the Internet, turning away a set of cases involving the use of the social-networking site MySpace.com.

The high court today let stand a ruling that permitted the punishment of a student who ridiculed a classmate online. The justices also left intact two decisions that said schools couldn’t discipline students who had created fake MySpace profiles for their principals.

The cases offered the justices a chance to update their student-speech rulings for the digital age. A 1969 ruling says schools can’t punish non-disruptive political speech, while a 1986 decision lets administrators punish lewd or vulgar student speech.

The cyber-bullying case concerned Kara Kowalski, who was suspended for five days and kicked off the cheerleading squad at her high school in Berkeley County, West Virginia, for creating a MySpace.com page dedicated to ridiculing a fellow student in 2005. The page was called “S.A.S.H.,” which Kowalski said stood for “Students Against Sluts’ Herpes.”

A federal appeals court based in Richmond, Virginia, said the punishment didn’t violate Kowalski’s free speech rights. The three-judge panel said online bullying “must be taken seriously by school administrators in order to preserve an appropriate pedagogical environment.”

Principal Parodies

The second appeal involved a pair of student parodies of school principals. In one, an eighth-grade student at a Pennsylvania middle school created a fake MySpace profile of the principal in 2007, using vulgar words to say he had sex in his office and suggest he was a pedophile. In the second, a Pennsylvania high school senior in 2005 created a fake profile that said his principal used illicit drugs and was gay.

A Philadelphia-based federal appeals court ruled that neither student could be disciplined. The court said in the middle school case that the speech “could not reasonably have led school officials to forecast substantial disruption in school.”

The cases are Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools, 11-461, and Blue Mountain School District v. Snyder, 11-502.

--Editors: Justin Blum

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net.


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