Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Two cases in the last week help shape school district's right to punish students for cyberbullying & cyberspeech

Two cases from two different federal appellate courts have reached similiar conclusions with respect to discipline of students for online, off-school activity. Though neither case comes from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the court that hears federal appeals from Ohio, both cases are instructive as to how a similiar situation may be dealt with within the public schools of the state.

The first case came out of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and originated in West Virginia. In that case, a student had created a fictious MySpace profile from home which was "largely dedicated to ridiculing a fellow student." The student invited approximately
100 people on her MySpace "friends" list to join the group. MySpace discussion groups allow registered users to post and respond to text, comments, and photographs in an interactive
fashion. Approximately two dozen High School students responded and ultimately joined the group, posting comments and pictures directed towards a particular student. The first student to join the group did so from a school computer during an after hours class.

The student who had been ridiculed's parents contacted the school district within a few hours and the site was changed.

School district officials believed that there was a sufficient nexus with the school to impose punishment. School administrators concluded that the student had created
a "hate website," in violation of the school policy against "harassment, bullying, and intimidation." For punishment, they suspended the student from school for and issued her
a "social suspension," which prevented her from attending school events in which she was not a direct participant.

The suspended student ultimately sued the school district for a purported violation of her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants, concluding that they were authorized to punish
the student because her webpage was "created for the purpose of inviting others to indulge in disruptive and hateful conduct," which caused an "in-school disruption."

In affirming the decision of the trial court, the appeals court concluded that the student had used the Internet to orchestrate a targeted attack on a classmate and did so in a manner that was sufficiently connected to the school environment as to implicate the School District’s recognized authority to discipline speech which "materially and substantially interfere[es] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school and collid[es] with the rights of others." Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community
Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 513 (1969).

The case caption is Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools.

In another case, from the Eighth District Court of Appeals, in a case that originated in Missouri, upheld the right of a school district to punish a student who had made death threats regarding other students via instant messenger. The threats were made by one student to his friend while both students were on their home computers. The student named particular students, and groups of students, and had said that he had wanted the school to be known for something.

Alarmed, the student receiving the instant messages contacted an adult, who contacted the principal. The student was then placed into juvenile detention. Subsequently, the school principal received a number of phone calls from concerned parents. Security was required to be increased. At that point, the district made the decision to suspend the student who had made the threats because it had been disruptive to the school environment.

The student subsequently returned to the school and graduated ahead of his class.

Nonetheless, his parents instituted a lawsuit, which found its way into federal court. With respect to the alleged violation of the student's First Amendment rights, the district court found that the court held that the student's speech had been an unprotected true threat and
alternatively that the District could properly discipline him for his speech because of
its disruptive impact on the school environment. The appeals court affirmed the decision.

The case is D.J.M v. Hannibal Public School District #60.

The bottom line with both of these cases is that the more of a nexus the speech has to the school, along with a reasonable showing of disruption to the school community, the more likely the courts will be in upholding student discipline involving cyberspeech.