3d Cir. Upholds Discipline of Student Based on Out-Of-School Conduct

J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District is a First Amendment claim in the school-law context. The case was filed by J.S., a student at a middle school in Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain School District. The student claimed that she had been suspended for 10 days in violation of her right to free speech. The suspension was in response to a fake MySpace profile the student had created.

The fake profile purported to be her school’s principal. It contained his picture, which she obtained from the school’s website. It did not identify him by name but did identify him as a middle-school principal.

The profile was written in the first-person so the comments on the page would be attributed to the person pictured (i.e., the unknowing principal). The content of the profile contained profanity to make most adults blush in the presence of mixed company, was sexually graphic, and even indicated that the principal was a pedophile.

The student initially left the page as public, but later changed the settings to private. The student invited others to view the page, though, and those students invited yet more students. The principal learned about the profile from one of the students. After viewing the site, he met with the appropriate members of the district and then suspended the two students responsible. One student (through her parents) then sued.

The district court found that the suspension had not violated the student’s First Amendment rights under Tinker because the school “could reasonably have forecasted a substantial disruption of or material interference with the school.” The Third Circuit affirmed the decision and agreed with the trial court’s analysis.

The student also argued that the district violated a Pennsylvania statute, which limits the conditions under which a school may impose discipline. She claimed that the statute prohibited the school from disciplining a student based on conduct that occurred off of school property and time. The district court rejected that argument because: (1) the student was enrolled in the district when she created the profile; and (2) the principal punished the student “to prevent interference with the educational process.”

It is a powerful decision for the education-law context but also demonstrates the courts’ willingness to discipline students for conduct outside the school walls. This is a logical progression, especially considering cases upholding the discipline of teachers for their off-duty conduct. It seems like a natural progression as the line between home and work (or school) continues to blur.

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