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PA Appeals Court Weighs Punishment For Students' Online Parodies 319

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 Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @08:47AM (#32457044) Homepage

    The clear intent of both students was to harass the teachers and cause disruption by undermining their authority. The publication was targeted at an audience (their peers), and the effect was felt inside the school.

    At this point, I could be describing: posting on the intartubes; putting up posters near the school with the same content; waving a placard outside the school gates; standing outside the window and yelling.

    In each case, the action was done outside the school, but the effects were felt inside it, and that is the salient point.

    Schools must be able to respond to actions that effect them by disciplining or excluding the student. That's independent of any civil or criminal actions brought against the students by the libelled individuals, and the police and prosecution services.

    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?

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

  • Re:Simple (Score:3, Interesting)

    by moeinvt ( 851793 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:04AM (#32457168)

    "If you posted a "parody" like this of your boss, on your own time and using your own resources, you'd still be fired. And with cause. It's no different just because these kids are in school."

    For a private school the employer/employee analogy works. It's completely different when the institution is a public school. AFAIK, students are required to attend school, and for most, government school is the only viable option. That doesn't grant the school blanket authority over the students' lives however. If the school district really needs to address something like this, I think a conversation with the student and parents should be step #1. If that fails, the school should pursue the case in civil, or possibly criminal court. Maybe they could hold a class or seminar teaching the kids about slander, libel, etc. with a few real world examples of the possible consequences? Public school officials should not be able to use their authority and arbitrary punishment to control the behavior of students outside the school.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:38AM (#32457500)

    Relying on internal discipline in lieu of referring violations of the law to the legal systems is not the right choice when http://www.now.org/nnt/fall-99/campus.html [now.org] colleges try to hand out internal discipline to rapists in lieu of turning them over to the cops.

    Nor is it the right choice when police departments try to limit punishment for illegal beatings, shootings, etc to internal-only discipline measures instead of letting the guilty cops be taken into the court system.

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @09:58AM (#32457692) Homepage

    So are you saying that students have no free speech rights (when applied to teachers and principals, who are public officials) whatsoever?

    It's not quite as clear-cut as you think, that's for sure. I'll put forward a few scenarios, tell me where the line is drawn:
      (a) Student goes up to Mr Smith in school and says "Go fuck yourself."
      (b) Student goes up to Mr Smith in school and says "You suck"
      (c) Student goes up to Mr Smith in school and says "You're incapable of doing your job."
      (d) Student raises his hand in class, is acknowledged, and explains to the class that Mr Smith just did some math on the blackboard that assumed that 2=1.
      (e) A student has just finished shoveling their family's driveway, and Mr Smith (who happens to live next door) blows snow onto the driveway. The student responds on the scene by saying "Screw you" to Mr Smith.
      (f) A student complains to his friends that Mr Smith is incompetent.
      (g) A student complains to his friends that Mr Smith blew snow into his driveway.
      (h) A student thinks Mr Smith has applied school rules improperly and arbitrarily, and writes an editorial in the school newspaper laying out his case.

    I can think of a few more cases, but this seems like a good starting point. Where's the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech in your view?

  • Re:Simple (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 04, 2010 @10:01AM (#32457716)

    Be careful citing that case.
    It ends up hinging on the student essentially promoting illegal drug use AND managing to be classified as if he were on school grounds due to it being a school event.

    It could be used in a case like this but it is definitely not cut and dried.

  • by abigsmurf ( 919188 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @10:20AM (#32457918)
    Libel and Slander are civil. Criminal impersonation is a felony.

    If the victim was a US citizen and the servers involved were on US soil, it would be quite easy for a court to claim jurisdiction on it.
  • by e3m4n ( 947977 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @10:38AM (#32458152)

    what makes you think someone under the age of 18 has any rights what so ever? The second amendment is just as high on the food chain as the first amendment yet that right is not bestowed upon you till your 18th birthday. As far as I can tell, the constitution is written so that all men and women are granted certain inalienable rights. Nothing is said about those who are not emancipated by 'age of majority' statute. Technically minors are 2nd class citizens who are not even protected by due process. I gave one example in another post... which I will re-cap.

    as an adult you can imprison me against my will, without cause, for up to 72 hours in a mental health facility by declaring me a danger to myself and/or others. Any length longer than this must be reviewed and approved by a judge. Otherwise you could violate a man's due process via end-run simply declaring them insane and locking them away forever. This would have been abused politically a long time ago without such protections.

    as a minor your parents and medical professions can have you imprisoned in a mental health facility without your consent until you reach the 'agent of majority'. They only need your parents permission. You have no due process to violate.

  • by Flea of Pain ( 1577213 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @10:45AM (#32458254)

    Except when it comes to people in positions of authority over children there is a "guilty until proven innocent" mentality. It isn't written into law, but put yourself in the shoes of the person doing the hiring... "Do I hire someone accused of pedophilia, or not? If he isn't a pedo, great, if he is, I'll have the biggest political shit storm since the gulf oil spill."

    Accusations of abuse or sexual misconduct in the field of education can and does have a huge effect on the teachers/principals involved (they become basically blackballed and can't practice their profession if they ever get laid off because no one will ever hire them), and as such I support this principal in putting a stop to it as quickly as possible.

  • by Flea of Pain ( 1577213 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @10:49AM (#32458328)

    Your power as a teacher ends at the school

    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.

  • First of all, I know of no schools who don't own the property at least 3 feet away from the building. But to address your point, yes there's a tremendous difference. The kid in a classroom is a student at the school among his classmates - the kid on the sidewalk is just some kid.

    Yes, there are some asshole kids who need a smackdown. This girl is pretty clearly one of them. And in this case, suspension is the wrong move mostly because she should've been sued for libel

    But it's like Mr. Bong Hits 4 Jesus guy. The way I see it, if the conduct in question does not depend on the fact that the child is a student of that school then the school shouldn't be involved. It didn't matter that either of these kids were members of the school - had they gone to other schools, or were homeschooled, it would have been thhe same. Same with Bong Hits kid - he could've been a 38-year-old loser who wanted to be funny and it wouldn't have mattered.

    I guess what I mean is - I'm seeing a lot of kids getting hit with disciplinary sticks primarily because the school has them, and not because it's the appropriate action. Usually this happens for things that are perfectly legal that the school just doesn't like for some (perhaps legitimate) reason, so they take action simply because they can.

    But yeah, the school's wrong here because for a 14-year-old girl (who knows the consequences) to do something so fucking stupid over a dress code thing (probably dressing like a slut) should simply wreck her life, not just get her a 2-week vacation. There are people who would literally kill this guy over stuff like that.

  • by iamhassi ( 659463 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @11:28AM (#32458972) Journal
    "as such I support this principal in putting a stop to it as quickly as possible."

    Agreed, and I'm shocked at the parent's reaction: "The student's mother has said punishing the girl should have been left up to her.

    Wow: your daughter is very publicly (shouting it in a classroom is publicly, posting it on myspace is very publicly) accusing school officials of being pedophiles, and you want to send her to her room without dinner? So, I guess next time she falsely accuses a boy of rape she gets no TV for a week?

    The student should have definitely been sued, and I'm disappointed the ACLU is defending them, because if their defense is successful my kids will be going to school with teachers and principals that are pedophiles, rapist, murders and drug dealers... or at least that's what it says when I do a google search if the ACLU gets their way.

    Oh and the "did this at home doesn't count" excuse doesn't fly: when you tell the whole world your actions you're doing it at school too. 20 yrs ago this would have been the equivalent of coming to school and passing out flyers to every student and staff member.

    These kids definitely should have been suspended for their off-campus online actions, because when they get to the real world and create fake myspace profiles of their bosses they'll get a lot more than 10 day suspensions.

You know, Callahan's is a peaceable bar, but if you ask that dog what his favorite formatter is, and he says "roff! roff!", well, I'll just have to...