Layshock v. Hermitage School District, No. 07-4465 (3d Cir. Feb. 4, 2010)
Snyder v. Blue Mountain School District, No. 08-4138 (3d Cir. Feb. 4, 2010)
Two different Third Circuit panels handed down seemingly contradictory decisions last week after considering whether offensive parody profiles of school principals created by students using MySpace outside of school were protected by the First Amendment.
In Layshock v. Hermitage School District, a unanimous, three-judge panel upheld the district court’s decision in favor of the student, holding that the offensive MySpace profile he created in the principal’s name was protected free speech under the First Amendment. The court based its decision on the fact that the student had created the profile off school grounds and had not substantially disrupted the school with his behavior.
By a vote of 2-1, a different three-judge panel upheld a district court’s decision against the plaintiff student in Snyder v. Blue Mountain School District. The court in Snyder held that the student’s vulgar parody profile of the principal was not protected free speech under the Constitution, and therefore the School District had a right to suspend the student. The court emphasized that the suspension was appropriate because the school had well-founded reason to believe that the student’s parody profile would cause substantial disruption.
In their respective decisions, both panels relied on several Supreme Court cases, including Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969) (holding that a school may not suppress student expression unless it will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school”). Despite the apparently contradictory nature of the holdings, commentators argue that the opposite decisions are justified in light of the different facts between the two cases.
In explaining why it denied the defendant school the right to punish the student who created the parody profile, the Layshock panel emphasized the fact that there was nothing more than an attenuated relationship between the student’s conduct and the school. Because the student created the parody profile off school grounds and the event did not cause substantial disruption at school, the student’s right to create the profile is protected by the First Amendment. The court held that the reach of school authorities is not without limits, and stated that it “will not allow the School District to stretch its authority so far that it reaches [a student] while he is sitting in his grandmother’s home after school” (Layshock at 36).
Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker and arguing that its decision is not limited to the physical boundaries of a school campus, the Snyder panel found that the parody profile at issue fell within the realm of student speech that is subject to school regulation. Whereas in Layshock it was not contended that the parody profile had any negative effects at the school, the defendant school in Snyder met its burden, showing that the profile caused a substantial disruption by demonstrating its well-founded belief that future disruption would occur. The plaintiff student was accordingly suspended as result of the potential disturbance that the parody profile could have caused if school officials had not intervened to remove it.
Dissenting from the holding in Snyder, Judge Michael A. Chagares argued that the facts did not support a reasonable belief that the parody profile would have caused substantial disruption at the school. He stated that he ”believe[d] that this holding vest[ed] school officials with dangerously overbroad censorship discretion” (Snyder at 44)
These two Third Circuit panel decisions are of extreme import because they exemplify current uncertainty regarding the extent of protected student speech on the Internet. This uncertainty has frustrated members of the legal community, including Anthony G. Sánchez, counsel for Hermitage School District in Layshock, who believes that student freedom of speech issues are ripe for review by the Supreme Court because lower courts are struggling to apply pre-Internet frameworks laid down in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Law.com). According to Sánchez, it is time for the Supreme Court to rule on the scope of First Amendment rights in situations where students have used the Internet to direct off-campus speech towards a school community.