Cyber-Bullying Update - U.S. Supreme Court Denies Review in Three Cyber-Bullying Cases

We previously reported on the decision in J.C. v. Beverly Hills Schools, 757 F.Supp.2d 1094 (C.D. Cal. 2010),  a case that held in favor of a suspended student and  established the principle that in order to discipline students for off-campus Internet bullying, school administrators must establish that the activity in question had a substantial disruptive impact on school related activities. 

Since that report, other cases have percolated around the country. Two of the most notable came from the Third Circuit and involved school districts in Pennsylvania.  (See Layshock v. Hermitage School District, 650 F.3d 205 (3rd Cir. 2011) and J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, 650 F.3d 915 (3rd Cir. 2011).) These two cases essentially track the Beverly Hills ruling, but were handed down not only by a higher court (a federal appellate tribunal as opposed to a federal trial court), but by an “en banc” appellate panel which consisted of many additional jurists.

In addition, a conflicting decision issued from another federal circuit in a case stemming from a West Virginia school district.  In Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools, 652 F.3d 565 (4th Cir. 2011), the Fourth Circuit held that is was indeed permissible for school officials to discipline a student for vicious Internet-related bullying that occurred off campus. The court made note of the fact that students’ First Amendment rights are not the same as those for adults in the community, and also observed that “[g]iven the targeted, defamatory nature of Kowalski's speech, aimed at a fellow classmate, it created “actual or nascent” substantial disorder and disruption in the school.”  The judges noted that the victim was forced to miss school in order to avoid further abuse.  “Moreover,” said the court, “had the school not intervened, the potential for continuing and more serious harassment of [the victim] as well as other students was real. Experience suggests that unpunished misbehavior can have a snowballing effect, in some cases resulting in “copycat” efforts by other students or in retaliation for the initial harassment. . . . Other courts have similarly concluded that school administrators' authority to regulate student speech extends, in the appropriate circumstances, to speech that does not originate at the school itself, so long as the speech eventually makes its way to the school in a meaningful way.”

Lawyers and school administrators across the country have kept a careful watch on these cases as the issue of cyber-bullying has wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  However, on January 17, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court denied further review of Layshock, J.S. and the Kowalski decisions, and they are now final.  Copies of the cases are attached for review, as is a copy of the J.C. case (which was also attached to our earlier advisory).

We regularly advise students, parents, and teachers, school administrators – in both the private and public school context – about important issues affecting the education environment.  If you have a question in this area, please feel free to contact our office.