Federal court backs Pa. students on Internet parodies

A federal appeals court says two Pennsylvania teens cannot face discipline from their principals for posting lewd comments online from home. The ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia tried to address the tension between student’s free speech and the Internet.

The courts are clear when it comes to lewd language and disruptive speech in public schools. Principals have the authority to discipline students. But what happens when students create offensive online parodies of their principals using private computers in their own homes?

In the case of two separate Pennsylvania school districts, the students were suspended. Each filed a civil rights lawsuit. The federal appeals court said lewd speech created outside of school is protected. The court, however, did not rule on whether principals can punish students if the Internet speech caused a disruption in school. The ACLU’s Vic Walczak represents the students.

“The question still hangs out there and is an important question as more and more kids have access the internet at home,” said the ACLU’s Vic Walczak, who represents the students. “They may be posting things on the Internet that school officials don’t like.”

Attorneys for Blue Mountain School District in eastern Pennsylvania and the Hermitage School District in western Pennsylvania had argued the MySpace profiles created disturbances at the schools. They told the court there should be disciplinary options when Internet postings affect the school “community.”

Six judges dissented with the decision, fearing that online attacks on school officials would go unpunished.

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