In the internet age, online free speech is an important and contentious issue. With the ubiquity of social media, the global village has been transformed into a gigantic dirty-laundry bazaar. Throwaway comments are picked over and analyzed for deeper meaning. In this environment, teachers are much more likely to get wind of their students' true feelings about them, expressed on sites like Facebook and the moribund MySpace.
Last week, a federal appeals court in Pennsylvania ruled on a couple of cases in which free speech was at the forefront. In the first case, a high-school senior named Justin Layshock had been suspended for ten days for creating a MySpace profile back in 2005 that purported to be from his principal, who found the site "degrading" and "demoralizing." But in Layshock v. Hermitage School District, all fourteen judges were unanimous in finding that his suspension was unconstitutional, in that his conduct took place outside of school, and it caused no real disruption at school.
In the second case, a middle-school girl — unnamed in the ruling — also created an unflattering MySpace profile of her principal, using his photo, but giving him the identity of a bisexual Alabama middle-school principal called "M-Hoe." The student said on the site, among other things, that "M-Hoe" "enjoyed hitting on students and their parents." The girl also ended up getting suspended for ten days, as "M-Hoe" was predictably not amused. In Snyder v. Blue Mountain School District, the court ruled eight to six — much more divided this time — in the girl's favor, saying "the profile was so outrageous that no one took its content seriously."
Knowing that kids say the darnedest things, this is not the last we're going to see of these types of cases, and, moving forward, subjectivity is going to be central in legal assessments of what is protected speech in cyberspace, and what isn't.