This case involves a high-school senior who did not like his school principal. The student decided to play a prank on the principal. The student used his grandmother’s computer to sign on to Myspace.com and created a parody profile of the principal. The student put up a photograph of the principal that he had copied from his school’s website. The student also used many derogatory statements about the principal including statements that the principal was a “big freak” and that he was “too drunk to remember the date of his birthday.” Word of the prank spread quickly through the school and three more students at the school created vulgar profiles of the principal on Myspace, and another student was allegedly so encouraged that he attempted to hack past numerous encrypted firewalls in the school to obtain sensitive information on the principal. When the principal learned about the Myspace profile, he suspended the student from school and placed him in the school’s Alternative Curriculum Education program, alleging his actions were equivalent to illegal violations of computer privacy like hacking and spyware use. The student was prohibited from participating in extracurricular activities and was also prohibited from attending his graduation ceremony due to the cyber bullying incident. The student sued the school claiming that the punishment he received violated his First Amendment right of free speech, and claiming his actions had not come anywhere near to the standard which qualified spyware and hacking as illegal internet activities; the school leveled a counter-suit against the teen in juvenile court.
Question(s) For Expert Witness
- 1. Can a school suspend a student for putting up a parody profile of a school principal on an internet social networking site?
Expert Witness Response
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of free speech. Minors, as well as adults, are guaranteed the First Amendment protection of free speech. This means that students in high school have the right to think for themselves and give voice to their opinions. In general, the free speech rights of a student can only be restricted if a student uses vulgar or improper speech on school grounds. It has been widely held that a school district has the right to censor a student’s speech on school grounds because of the special nature of the school environment. A school district usually can restrict a student’s free speech rights if the student uses lewd speech on school grounds that is likely to cause a material and substantial disruption of the school day. In this case, the school may have improperly restricted the student’s right of free speech since he created the profile on his grandmother’s computer off school grounds. Even though word of the prank quickly spread through the school, the school probably exceeded its authority in punishing him since there was no evidence that the prank had substantially disrupted the school environment. Since the prank was done off-campus and school officials were probably still able to maintain an environment conducive to learning, the school probably violated the student’s right to free speech in this case.