(Mar. 30, 2010) Two panels of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued rulings on the same day, reaching different results on whether the United States Constitution permits a student to be punished by school officials for statements published on a Myspace page created outside of school.
Both Layshock v. Hermitage School District and J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District involved students who made parody profiles of their respective high school principals on Myspace, a popular social networking website. In both cases, the pages were created outside of school. The students' roles in creating the Myspace pages were discovered, and they were punished by school authorities. The students' parents sued the schools for violating their children's First Amendment free speech rights. In the Layshock case, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled in the student's favor on the First Amendment claim. In the J.S. case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that the school district's discipline was appropriate, and the First Amendment was not violated. Appeals to the Third Circuit followed in both cases.
The Third Circuit panel in the Layshock case ruled that the First Amendment permits school officials to punish out-of-school student speech only under limited circumstances, namely, when there is “foreseeable and substantial disruption of school.” Because the district court had found no disruption from the Myspace page, and the school district did not appeal that ruling, the appellate court affirmed the district court's ruling in favor of the student.
The Third Circuit panel in the J.S. case reached the opposite result, affirming the district court ruling against the student. That panel found that because the district court determined that the explicit nature of the statements on the Myspace page and the ability to disseminate them to a wide audience in and out of school had the potential for “substantial disruption,” the student's punishment by the school was consistent with the First Amendment. The J.S. panel distinguished the J.S. case from the Layshock case by noting that in the latter there was no showing of a relationship between the student's speech and a substantial disruption of the school environment. (Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., No. 07-4465 (3rd Cir. Feb. 4, 2010), available at http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/074465p.pdf; J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, No. 08-4138 (3rd Cir. Feb. 4, 2010), available at http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/084138p.pdf.)