Students First Amendment Rights Upheld in Major Cases Related to Cyber-Bullying; Third Circuit Affirms Rule That There Must be a Substantial Disruption At The School Site In Order To Justify Discipline For Posting On-Line Content

Cyber-bullying is a major topic of discussion in every school district in America.  Not surprisingly, this issue is finding its way into the courthouses all across the country, too.

We commented earlier on the case from Beverly Hills, which involved a student who posted a YouTube video critical of another student and was suspended for doing so; she won a ruling from the District Court that her conduct was protected by the First Amendment. (See J.C. v. Beverly Hills School District – additional copy attached for your convenience).

Now the issue has risen one level higher in the federal judicial framework as the Third Circuit court of appeals in Pennsylvania has ruled in two related cases that off-campus student posting on the internet cannot be the basis of school discipline unless there is a substantial disruption at the school site.  The cases are J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District and Layshock v. Hermitage School District.  Both involved fictitious postings on the popular MySpace wesite in which students made fun of their school principal.

Despite the fact that the postings were quite crude and were widely known among students who spoke about them at school (and sometimes during class), the court found that the content was protected by the First Amendment and that the school district had not made the case that a “substantial disruption” had occurred at school so as to justify the discipline imposed (the students in each case were suspended).

It should be noted that both J.S. and Layshock were decided by full panels of the Third Circuit on rehearing en banc and that there is a major dissenting opinion in the J.S. case, and a related concurrence in Layshock case.  We suspect that perhaps these cases, and almost certainly these issues, will one day reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Copies of the the J.S. and Layshock cases, as well as of the earlier Beverly Hills case, are attached for your convenience.

We regularly advise clients in the public and private education context about important legal questions such as those involved in these cases. Feel free to contact us if you need assistance in this area.