Federal case tests school rules on internet speech

    The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will be deciding whether public school officials can discipline students for lewd speech on the Internet.

    The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will be deciding whether public school officials can discipline students for lewd speech on the Internet.

    In a rare move, the entire Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday on two Pennsylvania cases that illustrate the tension between First Amendment rights and the Internet.

    Two students, from different school districts, created offensive online parodies of their principals using private computers in their own homes. Each student was suspended and  filed civil rights lawsuits.

    Vic Walczak is with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and represents the students.

    “The real issue here is to what extent can school principals tell students what they can say at home, at the mall and on the Internet,” says Walczak. “And we believe that not only do students have greater free speech rights outside of school, but it also implicates parents’ rights.”

    Walczak says schools have other options like sit-downs with parents who should decide how to discipline the student.

    Attorneys for the two school districts argued that in both cases, the profiles created disturbances at the schools. And there should be disciplinary options when Internet postings affect the school “community.”

    Previous rulings from the Third Circuit on the two cases contradicted each other.

    The 14-member panel could take months to issue a new ruling meant to clarify the issue for schools.

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