Court/Judicial body: Third Circuit Court of Appeals (a federal appeals court just below the Supreme Court)
Citation: 650 F.3d 205 (3rd Cir. 2011)
Date: 13 June 2011
Instrument(s) cited: United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, First Amendment (freedom of expression)
Background: A high-school student was suspended and being considered for expulsion for creating a fake social media profile of the school’s principal. The student and his parents filed a suit against the school arguing that the punishment was disproportionately harsh. The profile was created outside school hours on the computer of the student’s relative. The only school resource used was a picture of the principal taken from the school district’s website. On one occasion, the student accessed the account while at school and was spotted by a teacher laughing at the page together with other students. As the investigation into the profile began, all computer-programming classes at the school were canceled until the student ultimately admitted to creating the profile.
Issue and resolution: Freedom of expression. The issue is whether a school may punish a student for expressive conduct targeting a school principal when the conduct originated outside of the school, did not disturb the school learning environment, and was not related to any school sponsored event. The Court held that the First Amendment to the US Constitution (freedom of expression) prohibits school authority to reach beyond school grounds to punish a student.
Court reasoning: In reaching its decision, the court invoked on the reasoning in several past decision by the US Supreme Court dealing with the First Amendment. First, it cited the Supreme Court holding in Tinker v. Des Moines that student expression may not be suppressed unless school officials reasonably conclude that it will materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school. It noted the following from the Tinker court’s reasoning: “First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Although it recognised the First Amendment’s reach into the school, the court did acknowledge that school officials have comprehensive authority to prescribe and control conduct in schools when that conduct is disruptive of the learning environment. One of several examples the appeals court gave of past US Supreme Court cases upholding school official’s restriction on speech was Morse v. Frederick, in which a student was punished for holding up a sign reading, “BONG HITS 4 JESUS” at a school-sanctioned event. The student who created the banner was suspended and later sued the principal. The US Supreme Court held that a principal may restrict student speech at a school event, when that speech is reasonably viewed as prompting illegal drug use because the government (and school officials) have an interest in restricting speech promoting drug abuse. After reviewing these past decisions, the court applied them to the present case and ruled in favor of the student. The school district’s argument that student had entered school property when he accessed the principal’s photograph on the school district’s website was rejected. The court determined it is not reasonable to treat this as trespass, as if he had broken into the principal’s office or a teacher’s desk. The school district argued that the profile was aimed at the school district’s community and the principal and was accessed on campus by the student. The school also argued it was reasonably foreseeable that the profile would come to the attention of the school district and principal. The court deemed the profile a “parody account” due to the obviously fake answers Justin gave to describe his principal. The answers were unreasonable and unrealistic, making the account readily understood as fake. The court, however pointed out that the school district had conceded that the profile did not cause disruption to the learning environment at the school. Therefore, the court ruled that even if the expression in question is lewd, vulgar, indecent, and plainly offensive, the First Amendment cannot tolerate the School District’s “stretching its authority” by punishing a student for expressive conduct that he engaged in in the privacy of a relative’s home.
Link to full judgement: http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/074465p1.pdf