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PA Appeals Court Weighs Punishment For Students' Online Parodies 319

Posted by timothy
from the at-least-the-judges-aren't-ciavarella-or-conahan dept.
crimeandpunishment writes "Is it a student's right to free speech or a school's right to discipline? A US Appeals Court in Pennsylvania heard arguments Thursday on a case that could have far-reaching implications. The issue involves the suspension of two students, from two different Pennsylvania school districts, for web postings they made on their home computers. The students posted parody profiles on MySpace that mocked their principals. The American Civil Liberties Union argued on behalf of the students."
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PA Appeals Court Weighs Punishment For Students' Online Parodies

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  • by AnonymousClown (1788472) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:21AM (#32456820)

    She used her principal's photograph and described him as a pedophile and mentioned a sex act. The girl later apologized, took down the page and was suspended for 10 days.

    OK, it's one thing to parody, it's another to accuse someone of a crime that will ruin them for the rest of their life. I think those kids shouldn't be suspended for parodies but when they are using actual images and making false accusations along with them, that's another matter. That fake profile could have gotten that principle murdered. There are many vigilantes out there who would love to knock off a child molester. Then there's the whole social stigma and ruining his life.

    Those kids went way too far - they went beyond parody.

  • by joel.neely (165789) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:22AM (#32456834)

    ...between humor and malicious behavior. We don't excuse a schoolyard bully if he claims, "I was just having fun." Neither should we ignore malicious false statements merely because someone claims, "I was just doing a parody."

    Accusations against teachers and principles of sexual misconduct against their students are typically taken very seriously (with good reason). So how is a student who makes such statements, apparently in retaliation for being disciplined at school, that different from a student who retaliates by pulling a fire alarm?

  • Simple (Score:5, Insightful)

    by characterZer0 (138196) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:24AM (#32456844)

    If something happens on school grounds or using school equipment, the school can discipline.

    If something happens off school grounds and not using school equipment that is damaging or may be illegal, involve the criminal justice system or sue.

    Why is this so hard?

    side note: Homeschooling parents are looking pretty smart, aren't they?

  • by somersault (912633) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:29AM (#32456892) Homepage Journal

    A 14-year-old Blue Mountain student who had been cited for a dress-code violation created a fake profile of a principal purportedly from Alabama. She used her principal's photograph and described him as a pedophile and mentioned a sex act. The girl later apologized, took down the page and was suspended for 10 days.

    That is pretty disgusting for anyone to do to any other human being, especially to anyone that makes a living from working with kids - but I don't think the school should be doling out any punishment. This should be a matter purely for the courts.

  • by Midnight's Shadow (1517137) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:30AM (#32456896)
    IANAL, but if I remember correctly intentionally misrepresenting someone as something that is patently false is libel or slander depending on how it is done. This is a criminal offense. The school should report it to the police, charges should be filed and life goes on. Unless the actions happened on school equipment or on school time, the school districts have no business getting involved. The kids did go too far but this isn't a school mater, it is a criminal one.
  • by morari (1080535) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:31AM (#32456904) Journal

    Maybe. But even then, the principal should have screamed "libel!" and let the police/courts handle that. Instead the student was suspended, despite nothing ever being done at the school itself. This is really just another case of school system trying to overstep their boundaries. It would happen every single day if people don't keep them in check.

  • Re:Simple (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mwvdlee (775178) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:34AM (#32456930) Homepage

    side note: Homeschooling parents are looking pretty smart, aren't they?

    A porn actress in a labcoat looks pretty smart too.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:36AM (#32456950)

    ...between humor and malicious behavior. We don't excuse a schoolyard bully if he claims, "I was just having fun." Neither should we ignore malicious false statements merely because someone claims, "I was just doing a parody."

    Accusations against teachers and principles of sexual misconduct against their students are typically taken very seriously (with good reason). So how is a student who makes such statements, apparently in retaliation for being disciplined at school, that different from a student who retaliates by pulling a fire alarm?

    One happened on school grounds.

    Certainly, the school and/or principal should respond to these accusations by filing a libel suit. There is no need for a school to be granted censorship or broad disciplinary powers over its students in this case.

  • by Pojut (1027544) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:39AM (#32456972) Homepage

    Hit that submit button too quick.

    I don't agree with making the guy look like a pedo, that's going too far...but that is a libel case, not an instance where disciplinary action should have been taken by the school. Leave it to the cops.

  • by dkleinsc (563838) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:41AM (#32456998) Homepage

    Did they engage in defamation? Yes. Is defamation legitimate grounds for suspension? No. If the principal believes he is slandered, he can as a private individual sue the students for slandering (although in this context, a reasonable argument could be made that he's a public figure, which makes this much harder). What he can't do is take official action against the students.

    For comparison's sake, let's say that a newspaper ran a front-page article (completely falsely) saying that a prominent politician's wife was a drunk and stating that the politician in question is bigoted against a minority group. While said politician could give a speech denouncing the paper, and could sue them for defamation, what he can't do is have the publisher of said paper arrested. (And for those old enough to remember the 1972 presidential campaign, you'll notice this isn't a hypothetical.)

  • by trinaryai (949870) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:47AM (#32457040)
    There is a general rule of law in the United States based on the concept of a "reasonable adult". Each of the first ten amendments of the American Constitution (and their analogues elsewhere) comes with the unwritten assumption that a reasonable adult will use these freedoms for the betterment of the community. The right to bear arms does not grant me the right to murder my neighbor because I don't like the car he drives. The right to peacefully assemble and protest the actions of government does not grant me the right to riot and destroy the property of others. In this case, the right to free speech does not grant the right to make false accusations. Despite a more liberal interpretation of law in recent years, slander and libel are still criminal acts, not protected by the first amendment. Would a reasonable adult consider J.L.'s parody to hold any truth? Probably not. Would a reasonable adult consider J.S.'s fake profile to hold any truth? Considering the forum on which it was placed, I would have to say yes, as there have been numerous instances of principals and teachers creating just such a profile. Therefore, the issue isn't whether schools have a right to police students' activities outside of school; but rather if actions taken in the world of cyberspace can or should be held to the same standards as those taken in print or public discourse.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:57AM (#32457110)

    First of all, assaulting the character of a government official is not an attack on the office or it's athority. There's a difference between respecting the office and respecting the person who happens to be occupying it at the time.

    The principal should have dealt with the problem as a private citazin (ask the girl to stop, and if she doesn't press charges for libel). Using his athority as principal to discapline a student for something done outside the school is an abuse of his athority.

    Actually, the ideal solution would have been for the principal to ask one of the English teachers to help the stsudent understand the line between libel and satire (ie use a characature of the person you want to ridicule not their actuall name/likeness). Then the principal gets the false accusations taken down, the student learn somnething, and everyone involved sees a principal who is adult enough to roll with the punches like any government official should.

  • by BenEnglishAtHome (449670) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:59AM (#32457124)

    The girl who called her principal a pedo was 14 years old. That puts her in high school.

    A pedo principal will not seek employment at a high school. He'll go to an elementary school or younger.

    Unless, of course, the girl doesn't understand (just like the mainstream media frequently misunderstands) the definition of the word "pedophile".

    What we have here is a teachable moment. The kid deserves an "F" on this vocabulary test. Somebody make her write on the chalkboard 1000 times: "Dictionaries are good. Using words without understanding them is bad."

  • by schon (31600) on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:01AM (#32457148)

    Ask yourself something - assuming the student is guilty of the act - what's better for the student and their family:

    1. Being suspended for a few days and learning that actions have consequences.

    2. Being taken to court, possibly having criminal charges pressed against you, bankrupting your family due to legal expenses and the judgement against you, and learning that actions have consequences.

    Sounds like the school did what was best for the student, and is now being punished for it.

  • by Bourdain (683477) on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:02AM (#32457158)

    Those kids went way too far - they went beyond parody.

    I completely agree with that is clearly beyond parody, but the real question is "Can schools punish students for web posts?" not "Can people be punished for [inflammatory] libel?".

    In a sense, these kids got off easy. They could have had real legal consequences as opposed to a school suspension.

  • by kevinNCSU (1531307) on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:08AM (#32457218)

    Presented with the option of leaping to the courts and costing the family money to defend themselves and the option of having the kid stay home from school a couple days to learn their lesson on what's acceptable and what's not I'd say they made the right choice.

    She's not just attacking the principal as a person, she's attacking him and his ability to do his job, and disrupting the ability of other kid's in that school to learn. Telling everyone a school is run by a pedophile has far reaching implications and is generally disruptive to the learning environment. Just like a kid cussing at a teacher during class, the school seems to me well within their rights to tell her to stay home for a couple days till she's ready to act responsibly. In fact, that seems like a much lighter sentence then the legal avenue.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:08AM (#32457224)

    Can we seriously countenance that a school can discipline or exclude a student for standing up in a classroom and yelling that Principal Peterson is a kiddie fiddler, but that it can't take action if the student moves three feet and yells the accusation in through the open window?

    Can we seriously countenance that Pennsylvania can execute a man for murdering someone inside Pennsylvania, but that Pennsylvania can't take action if the man moves three feet over to commit the murder inside New York instead (that same 3 foot move also takes execution out of the set of potential punishments)? YES.

    If so, then schools might as well hand out copies of Lord of the Flies as their conduct rules.

    The geographically-limited ability of States and Municipalities to enforce the rules each sets hasn't had that effect yet.

  • Re:Simple (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:12AM (#32457252)

    First of all schools aren't the student's employers (if you think they're comparable than you don't understand the concept of education, or posibly employment). Secondly schools are a government institution and therefore are held to higer standards regarding freedom of speech. And Finally, if you think this was a real threat to the athority of a school figure than you're clearly too old to remember what students think of their instructors.

  • Re:myspace? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:24AM (#32457360)
    That's why it was obviously a parody.
  • by Lythrdskynrd (1823332) on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:29AM (#32457404)

    Did they engage in defamation? Yes. Is defamation legitimate grounds for suspension? No.

    That is untrue. It is absolutely grounds for suspension. I was a high school teacher for five years and dealing with discipline amongst the students is paramount. As a teacher you've got to stand in front of 30 (ish) teenagers and teach. Many of them don't want to be there, some of them have decided that they hate you personally over some personal slight from six months ago (ie: telling them they must complete their assignment rather than playing flash games, or it seems an issue with uniform as in the article). If one student sits back and tells you to go fuck yourself and is seen to suffers no consequence then that behavior spreads. Inside or outside of school is irrelevant (though is it the case that the speech that is accessible in school is speech in school?) How often do you read stories with headlines like "Student behavior out of control", "Teachers ineffective"... the fact is that there are good parents and bad parents. Leaving discipline choices up to the good parents is fine, leaving discipline choices up to bad parents is disaster. Better just to treat all students equally. One set of rules, consequences for actions. Let them adjust themselves to society and not the inverse. At the end of the day, the punishment of suspension is about teaching them right from wrong, and a page calling your teacher a pedophile is wrong.

  • by cptdondo (59460) on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:31AM (#32457432) Journal

    Kids are kids. They will do stupid things; it's the nature of being a teenager. You push limits to see what they are.

    OK, this kid did something stupid. Should the full force of the law be brought down on them? Heck no!

    The kid took down the page, apologized, and it should end there. The kid learned something. Life goes on.

    The school has no right to reach out and punish a kid for doing something on their own time. They can refer it to the cops, or they could actually use this to teach acceptable limits to behavior.

    Instead, they used it to teach the kid how to play smackdown when you have power and they don't.

    That's a lesson that the kid will remember for a long time. And when that kid is a wage earner, and the principal wants an increase to his social security check and better medicare, don't you think this kid will remember how it feels to have power over someone else and how to smack them down?

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:32AM (#32457444) Homepage Journal

    I don't know, I've heard some really sick jokes that were incredibly funny. Not having seen the actual parody you really can't judge whether it was funny or not.

  • by morgan_greywolf (835522) on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:40AM (#32457520) Homepage Journal

    IANAL, but if I remember correctly intentionally misrepresenting someone as something that is patently false is libel or slander depending on how it is done. This is a criminal offense

    No. Defamation, which slander are libel are forms of, is generally not a criminal offense in the United States; it's a tort. There is no criminal defamation at the federal level, although 17 states do have criminal defamation statutes, though they seem to be rarely enforced and are generally considered a misdemeanor.

  • by Beyond_GoodandEvil (769135) on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:43AM (#32457552) Homepage
    Inside or outside of school is irrelevant
    Wrong. Your power as a teacher ends at the school, unless you want to be held liable for all the actions of the children you've ever taught?Because that sword cuts both ways.
  • by Shotgun (30919) on Friday June 04, 2010 @10:21AM (#32457930)

    No. He will be punished far beyond what is reasonable. He'll be put on a sex offender website and hounded for the rest of his life, even though he is only two weeks older than she is.

    If a female teacher is caught with a 17.999 year old boy, they'll probably both make a career out of appearances on daytime talk shows.

    Damn, I love this country.

  • by AndersOSU (873247) on Friday June 04, 2010 @10:24AM (#32457956)

    Hmmm. There are a lot of differences between this case and the Jerry Fallwell case. First, Jerry Fallwell was undeniably a public figure, which makes defamation much more difficult. A high school principle may be a public figure, but I don't think that it is clear cut. Second, the Hustler article claimed that Fallwell's had an ongoing sexual experience was with his mother that started in an outhouse in a magizine known for being outrageous. That's a lot less plausible than a student accusing a high school principle being a pedophile in an open forum that is occasionally ridiculous, but occasionally serious. IMO, on first read, this probably was libelous speech. The open question is whether the school can deal with this situation administratively (which is less harsh, but also less subject to review) or whether they're compelled to bring a suit in such a situation.

  • by DaleSwanson (910098) on Friday June 04, 2010 @10:34AM (#32458094)
    I'll agree the power to punish kids for stuff they do outside of school would make your job easier. However, as Bush famously said: "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."

    Just because having a power would make your job easier doesn't mean you should have it.
  • Re:Simple (Score:3, Insightful)

    by AndersOSU (873247) on Friday June 04, 2010 @10:36AM (#32458126)

    Only if the district can make the case that posting at home is at a "school sponsored event," which I don't think they can.

    What I think they'll try to do is demonstrate that the speech entered the school, and thus gave them authority to act. I'm not sure what the right decision is, but I suspect that the Robert's court will find for the school district (if it goes that far.)

  • by mysidia (191772) on Friday June 04, 2010 @11:25AM (#32458922)

    We keep hearing in the news of people being fired or disciplined at work, both private sector and public sector employees in that category, based on some dumb thing they posted on Facebook.

    What do you think would happen if one of the president's staffers got caught posting a fake Facebook page mocking the president and using obscenities?

    In the best case scenario, they would be politely asked to step down.

    So if adults are subject to this, what is the justification for students to have stronger free speech protections than the rest of the public?

  • by AndersOSU (873247) on Friday June 04, 2010 @11:39AM (#32459120)

    The test for parody isn't "is it funny." The test for parody is, would a reasonable person believe the charges to be true.

    I've seen a lot of really drab, outrageous and unfunny parody. I've also read some pretty hilarious libelous stuff (e.g. take any "dumb criminal" story and remove all instances of "allegedly.")

  • by steelshadow (586869) <roadster1200xl.yahoo@com> on Friday June 04, 2010 @11:48AM (#32459244)

    Tell that to the group of bad parents that expect you to basically raise their children. It's not unheard of for schools to have to provide not only education, but meals, social training, and deal with behavioral issues.

    If the teachers can't tell that to the parents then they are not doing THEIR job. Schools providing meals, social training, etc., are things that are happening inside the school. What is happening outside of the school is outside the authority of the school.

  • by AndersOSU (873247) on Friday June 04, 2010 @12:09PM (#32459516)

    Your idea won't work with mandatory education.

    And I think you're taking an exception and making it the rule. Confident teachers like being challenged by intelligent students, but that's not what 9/10 classroom disruptions in primary schools are. Most disruptions are gossiping, chatting, fighting, etc.

    Plato's acadamy and schools for the gifted have the great advantage of selecting their students. It is wholly unsurprising that when you get to pick your pupils you end up with students who want to learn. This is very much not true universally.

  • by cduffy (652) <charles+slashdot@dyfis.net> on Friday June 04, 2010 @12:12PM (#32459558)

    I'm not saying that libel or slander shouldn't be punishable when done by students, to the same extent that it's punishable when done by adults and with all of the same defenses available.

    However, that should be done through the court system, where there's an opportunity for an equitable defense, rather than through the "private court" of the school's disciplinary system.

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