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Supreme Court declines to hear challenges to student speech cases

A pair of cases out of Pennsylvania that dealt with whether schools have the power to punish students for Internet speech they make while at home were brought to the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, but the high court declined to hear the cases. Attorneys for one of the punished students called the decision a de facto victory for those who believe schools' power over student's Constitutional rights do not extend past the schoolhouse door.

Both cases involved students creating satirical MySpace accounts to mock their high school principals. In one case, a 17-year-old senior from Mercer County created a page in 2005 mocking his principal's weight. The other page was created in Schuylkill County and used the student's principal's picture on a page about a fictitious principal in Alabama described as a sex addict and pedophile.

The students' schools both punished them for creating the MySpace pages. The first student was removed from his school's advanced program and placed into a program for students with behavioral problems. He was also banned from all extracurricular activities and not allowed to attend his graduation ceremony. The other student was suspended from school for five days.

The first student sued the school district in federal court, and the judge ruled in 2007 that school officials had violated the student's First Amendment rights. The school appealed but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision last June. In the other case, the student also sued but a federal trial court sided with the school. The student appealed and the 3rd Circuit overturned the verdict, also on First Amendment grounds.

According to an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented both students, the Supreme Court's decision not to grant cert to the government's appeal of both decisions indicates that the Court recognizes a limit on schools' ability to quash students' free speech once they are no longer at school.

Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "High court fails to act in off-campus speech cases," Brian Bowling, Jan. 18, 2012

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