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Published: Sunday, 6/19/2011

Mean speech

Ferris Bueller can relax. A federal appeals court has affirmed the free-speech right of students to mock their principals on the Internet.

In 2006, Pennsylvania high school senior Justin Layshock was suspended for 10 days, banned from extracurricular activities, and forbidden to walk down the aisle to receive his diploma after his unflattering parody of his principal appeared on MySpace.

Because he created the profile on his own time and without school resources, he reasonably assumed it was beyond the school’s jurisdiction. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the young man sued the school district for violating his First Amendment rights.

In 2007, the ACLU similarly represented an eighth-grader in another Pennsylvania district, after she was suspended for 10 days for creating a profanity-filled MySpace profile of her principal.

Both parodies caused their subjects humiliation and emotional distress. But that isn’t enough to abrogate the free-speech rights of students away from school, even if they behave like jerks.

The appeals court ruled that neither parody caused a “substantial disruption,” — an important element in free-speech cases at schools. The court said school authorities may not “reach into a child’s home and control his/her actions there to the same extent it can control a child when he/she participates in school-sponsored activities.”

The principals overreacted to portrayals that were mean-spirited but protected speech, and inappropriately punished students at school for behavior that occurred at home. The court offered a reminder that even young people bent on mockery have First Amendment freedoms.

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