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Supreme Court to schools: Take care with First Amendment

January 17, 2012 | 10:46 am

Off-campus speech via computer
The Supreme Court on Tuesday turned down appeals from two Pennsylvania school districts that were successfully sued by students who posted on the Internet malicious mockeries of their school principals.

The court’s action puts school officials on notice they may violate the First Amendment if they try to discipline students for online posts made from their home computers.

Last year, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school officials cannot police “off-campus speech” by students unless they can show it caused a major disruption at school.  Based on that standard, the appeals court upheld free-speech lawsuits by the students over profiles of their principal that one judge called “lewd and vile.”

In one case, an eighth-grade girl posted a mock profile of her principal with his photo that called him a “sex addict” who enjoyed “hitting on students” on his office. In a second, a high school senior from western Pennsylvania profiled his principal on MySpace as a drug user, a “big fag” and a “big whore.”

After the students were briefly suspended, they and their parents sued the school districts, citing the First Amendment.

A national coalition of school administrators and counselors had urged the high court to take up the issue. They said the “explosion” of social media had blurred the lines between on-campus and off-campus speech. And they argued that the Constitution “does not demand that school officials remain idle in the face of vulgar and malicious attacks.”

But without comment, the high court turned away appeals not only from the Pennsylvania schools but also from one in West Virginia. In the latter case, a student’s online attack was directed against another student.

The court also turned down an appeal that sought to allow a greater use of Christian prayers at county council meetings.

The justices let stand a ruling holding a North Carolina county board violated the First Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion" by opening its sessions with a Christian prayer. The judges agreed, however, the board could have a non-denominational prayer at each session.

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Photo: The Supreme Court declined to hear appeals of two lower-court rulings won by students disciplined for online posts about their principals. Credit: L.G. Patterson / Associated Press

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