Monday, October 15, 2012

Legal Brief: J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District

Case Name, Citation, Year

  • J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, No. 08-4138 2011 WL 2305970 (3rd Cir. 2011)


Facts of the Case

  • J.S. and another student were punished at school for a dress code violation by the principal, Mr. McGonigle. After returning home, J.S. and her friend created a MySpace profile for a “M-Hoe” with a photo of McGonigle from the school website. Mr. McGonigle was not named, nor was the school; however, several vulgar comments were made about Mr. McGonigle and his immediate family. The school’s web filtering software blocks MySpace, so the profile was never seen at school, nor was the profile created on school campus. A school computer was not used in the making of the profile. Several days later, a student came forward and told Mr. McGonigle about the MySpace profile. The principal asked the student to bring a print out of the profile to school; this print out was the only hard copy of the profile to ever come to campus. After reading the profile and discovering the identity of the students who made it, Mr. McGonigle confronted the two students who admitted to creating the profile. In a meeting with the parents of J.S., the MySpace profile was brought to their attention and they apologized for their daughters behavior. J.S. wrote a formal letter of apology. Mr. McGonigle gave the students a ten-day out of school suspension and threatened the parents with legal action and did contact the police. The police spoke with the families about the possible legal ramifications of the MySpace profile.

Issues

  • Did Mr. McGonigle violate the students’ right to free speech?
  • Did Mr. McGonigle violate the Fourteenth Amendment rights J.S.’s parents to raise their daughter as they see fit?
  • Are Blue Mountain Student Handbook and Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) unconstitutional due to vague and overreaching language?

Ruling

  • The majority ruled that Mr. McGonigle, acting on the part of Blue Mountain School District, did violate the students’ right to free speech; therefore, the students’ punishment must be overturned by the lower court. However, the majority found that the Fourteenth Amendment rights of the parents were not violated by the school and that the student handbook and AUP were constitutional.


Rationale or Justification

  • Citing several landmark cases like Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986), Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 266 (1988) and Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007), plus several Federal Court cases such as Lowery v. Euverard, 497 F.3d 584, 591–92 (6th Cir.2007), LaVine v. Blaine Sch. Dist., 257 F .3d 981, 989 (9th Cir.2001), and Doninger v. Niehoff, 527 F.3d 41, 51 (2d Cir.2008) the court ruled against the school district. The court’s opinion was based on several key facts in the case. J.S. and the other student never created, nor brought to school anything about the MySpace account that they created; furthermore, the MySpace profile was not created on school owned or leased computers. Finally, the school software blocked MySpace. The court applied Tinker as a test demonstrating that no disruption to the educational process was apparent. In addition, the court used the Fraser exception to Tinker but ruled that this didn’t pass muster, because Fraser cannot be applied to off-campus expression. The court agreed that what J.S. and the other student wrote was vulgar and mean-spirited, but because it was created off-campus and produced no disruption to the educational process, it was protected by the Free Speech provision of the First Amendment. In citing the same case history, the court found that the parents’ rights to raise their child as they wished lacked merit, because the suspension did not interfere with them instilling their own opinions of right or wrong in their child; in addition, the school has the right to reasonably control student behavior in order to facilitate the educational process. As to the claim that the student handbook and AUP used language that was vague and overreaching and therefore unconstitutional, the court disagreed citing the language in the student handbook and AUP was clear and concise, but that the principal, Mr. McGonigle, had misapplied the rules.


Personal Reaction to Decision

  • As a former Dean of Students it is pretty tough to swallow the idea that a student I may punish is protected by free speech from bashing me off campus as much as he/she likes as long as it doesn’t come on campus; however, the reality is that school officials are public figures and aren’t afforded the same rights to privacy as non-public figures. Also, the actions of a teenager shouldn’t get the best of an adult. I respect the freedom of speech for all people and believe that Voltaire said it best, “I may despise what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” I agree with the court, but it is sad that this case went to court to begin with. The minority opinion in the case made an interesting argument by stating that the Internet is everywhere and that J.S. and her friend knew that at some point the MySpace account was going to be discovered by other students and then come on campus, but I still believe the majority was correct to decide the way they did. Does a teenager fully understand that the Internet and everything published on it are essentially public to the whole world? I’d like to think so, but having seen many students make mistakes with publishing unfortunate things on the Internet, I believe they do necessary know the ramifications of their actions, which is where we enter the scene as educators. The Internet is everywhere, but we must draw some lines between where families have the right to govern themselves and where the school can govern students. J.S. and the other student wrote some pretty terrible things on the Internet about Mr. McGonigle and his immediate family, which is where the principal should have taken a deep breath before he launched into his witch hunt. A ten-day out of school suspension was very harsh in my opinion and then calling the police pushed J.S.’s family into a corner. This is a time where you sit down with the families involved and have a very long discussion about the importance of Internet safety, integrity, making mistakes and learning from them. 


Implications

  • First and foremost, don’t overreact to a student publishing something on the Internet. The courts’ standard for free speech is a tough one to overcome; if the situation doesn’t clearly affect the educational process, an administrator is on very shaky ground. If the speech occurs off campus, administrators should assume that the courts will treat it as protected free speech. Administrators do have a leg to stand on, if the speech occurred on campus, or with school computers, and there was clearly a disruption to the educational process. A personal insult, even a public one, doesn’t give an administrator the right to punish a student immediately. If McGonigle would have waited another week, he probably would have been completely justified in his decision on a suspension. In fact, I think if Mr. McGonigle would have stopped with a shorter suspension and the apology, J.S.’s family would have never brought this case to court. Although there were hurtful and ugly things stated about McGonigle and his family, as administrators we should always put personal feelings aside and focus on what is best for the student. J.S. was, at the time, an eighth grade teenager; she was punished for a dress code violation and lashed out on the Internet. This was a great time for a teachable moment for the child and family; a wonderful opportunity to show some benevolence and compassion. Instead, it turned into a fiasco, an huge expense and embarrassment for the school district. Mr. Gonigle was upset and possibly worried about his reputation in the community, after losing this court case and spending thousands of dollars of the district’s money -- is his reputation better or worse? I’d say worse.