Frequent Slashdot Contributor Bennett Haselton writes "A federal judge has ruled that a school district didn't violate a student's free speech rights when it suspended her for a parody MySpace page she created calling her principal a sex addict who "hits on students". In the ruling, Judge James M. Munley made the curious argument that if the case involves a student publishing lewd and offensive speech outside of school on their own time, then the proper precedent-setting cases to look to, are cases involving students making offensive statements in school during school hours, not cases involving students making less-offensive statements outside of school on their own time. In other words, if you can't find prior caselaw where all of the factors are the same, then the lewd-speech issue is more significant than the issue of whether the speech was made in or out of school." Hit that magical link below to read the rest of these words.
Apart from the politics of minors' free speech rights in general, I think there are at least three logical problems with the ruling. The first is the judge's argument that even though on-campus speech and off-campus speech are separate, if the off-campus speech is offensive enough, that elevates it to the point of giving the school jurisdiction over it. The second is the judge's comparison between a student's parody MySpace page, and the mock-threatening rap lyrics that got a student expelled in another court case -- a court ruled that the school overstepped their bounds by expelling the student for the rap song, but Judge Munley said that a MySpace page jokingly calling the principal a "sex addict" was actually more offensive than the violent rap lyrics. The third is the argument that because the student's conduct was so offensive that it could have theoretically been criminally punished if the principal took her to court, that made it acceptable for the school to take the easier route of suspending her.
All right, all together now: I'm not a lawyer, and probably neither are you. But as I've said before, if you put 10 judges in 10 separate rooms and asked them to decide this case (or any other case) independently of each other, you'd be very unlikely to get a consensus anyway. The importance of courts in a civilized society is that they provide a peaceful means of settling disputes, not because we expect that the judges will actually get the "right" answer -- that's why we don't have a crisis of faith in the system every time the Supreme Court splits 5-4. (By contrast, when physicists work on problems involving car safety and satellite trajectories, we do care about them getting the "right" answer, and so physicists are held to a higher standard than judges -- we expect that 9 physicists working on the same problem in separate rooms would all get the same result.) That goes for the rest of us too -- I have no independent confirmation that I'm right, and anyone ranting with supreme confidence that I'm wrong, has no independent confirmation that they're right, either. The best we can do is try to make arguments that are logically consistent, and check that even if they are free of internal contradicions, that they also can't be carried through to an absurd conclusion.
To wit: Judge Munley's decision cites four prior cases that involved students making offensive or disruptive speech (although still not as offensive as the MySpace page in this case calling the principal a pedophile) while on school property or at school events: Bethel School Dist v. Fraser, Hazlewood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, Morse v. Frederick, and Klein v. Smith. In those cases, the courts ruled that the discipline did not violate the students' rights because the students were at school events or on campus when they made the statements at issue. Judge Munley then cites another list of cases in which students published speech that was generally more offensive than the incidents in the first list, but did it on their own time, away from school: Flaherty v. Keystone Oaks Sch. Dist., Latour v. Riverside Beaver Sch. Dist., Killion v. Franklin Regaional Sch. Dist., and Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist. In all of these cases, the courts ruled that the school districts violated the students' rights by punishing them for off-campus speech. So far, all eight of these cases cited by Munley, followed the rule: on-campus or school-affiliated speech is punishable, off-campus speech is not. (Munley cites only one case that was an exception to this rule: Fenton v. Stear, in which the court upheld the punishment of a student who was off campus when he loudly referred to a teacher as a "prick.")
But then, Judge Munley argues more or less that the speech in this case is so offensive (calling the principal a sex addict and a pedophile), that you're allowed to lift it out of the category of off-campus speech and treat it by analogy to earlier cases involving on-campus speech. Munley wrote:
In the instant case, there can be no doubt that the speech used is vulgar and lewd. The profile contains words such as "fucking," "bitch," "fagass," "dick," "tight ass," and "dick head." The speech does not make any type of political statement. It is merely an attack on the school's principal. It makes him out to be a pedophile and sex addict. This speech is not the Tinker silent political protest. It is more akin to the lewd and vulgar speech addressed in Fraser. It is also akin to the speech that promoted illegal actions in the Morse case.
The content itself is "akin" to the offensive speech in the earlier cases, but what difference does that make, if the speech didn't take place in school? Getting back to first principles: Why does the First Amendment generally grant the freedom to call people "dick" and "tight ass"? Because it doesn't hurt anyone except to the extent that it hurts their feelings, and you don't have a right to unhurt feelings. Because the remarks can be made in the context of general legitimate criticism of someone, which might motivate them to change the behavior that led someone to call them a "tight ass" in the first place. Once these premises are accepted, it doesn't matter if you ratchet up the offensiveness from calling someone a "dick" to calling them a "fucking dick." It does change the analysis if you move the speech to a different setting, e.g. standing up in class when people are trying to learn, and shouting that the principal is a "fucking dick." But that's not what this student was doing.
After all, if the regulation of off-campus speech were justified in order to prevent harm or embarrassment to the principal, carry that through to its logical conclusion: Suppose a former student, who had since graduated, created the parody MySpace page and e-mailed it to friends at the school. The school's "interest" in preserving order and protecting the principal's reputation, would be exactly the same -- and yet no court has ever suggested that the government can punish a former student for speech outside of school (unless the speech rises to the level of threats or libel, which anyone can be punished for, regardless of the former student-principal relationship). To be punished, the former student would have to bring the speech into the school, where it could cause a disruption (and where, as a non-student, they could be banned from the premises anyway).
As for the second problem, apart from the issue of whether offensiveness alone is enough to give the school the right to punish a student for off-campus speech, there is the question of what criteria Judge Munley used to determine that the MySpace page was more offensive than the student off-campus speech in previous cases. In Latour v. Riverside Beaver Sch. Dist. , the court found that a student's rap lyrics which made mock threats toward another student, identified by name, could not be treated as a true threat because they were the kind of boastful posturing that rappers are known for (apparently including the ones in junior high school these days). Similarly, the MySpace page created in this case, began with the words:
yes. It's your oh so wonderful, hairy,
expressionless, sex addict, fagass, put on this world
with a small dick PRINCIPAL
and hopefully the principal would agree that any reasonable reader would know this was not written by him. So if the content of the speech in both cases was clearly not meant to be taken seriously, a fair apples-to-apples comparison would be to ask which is the more offensive topic: violence, or a joke about a principal listing among his "interests": "detention, being a tight ass, riding the fraintrain, spending time with my child (who looks like a gorilla), baseball, my golden pen, fucking in my office, hitting on students and their parents"?
What Judge Munley seems to be saying is that joking about murder is more acceptable than joking about a principal hitting on students. While I think this is absurd and offensive to victims of violence, I have to admit that this is at least consistent with standards of censorship in the U.S. It's a tired old complaint, but it's never been satisfactorily answered: Why can you show a character being killed on television, but a sex act is taboo? Why are the most offensive swear words derived from sex acts and sex organs, but there are no equivalent words for murder that are banned from the airwaves? What's worse?
Third, the judge seemed to adopt the position that because the student could theoretically have been prosecuted for creating the fake MySpace profile, that made it acceptable for the school to impose a milder punishment that circumvented the court system. Judge Munley wrote:
The speech at issue here could have been the basis for criminal charges against J.S. Additionally, the state police indicated to McGonigle that he could press harassment charges based upon the imposter profile. (Dep. McG, 98- 99). McGonigle indicated that he would not press charges, but asked the police officer to contact the students involved and their parents to inform them of the seriousness of the situation. (Dep. McG at 99, 163-64). The officer summoned the students and their parents to the state police station and discussed the seriousness of the profile and that McGonigle would not press charges.
It's at least debatable whether the MySpace page, which was an obvious parody, could have been the basis for criminal charges. But suppose we grant the judge that point. In that case, even if we know that someone's actions would have gotten them a more severe punishment from the courts, is it acceptable to give them a lighter punishment for something else, just because that's simpler for the school?
No. First, because it fosters disrespect for the rule of law in general: If you committed X, then you should be punished for X, according to the rules set up for punishing X. When Judge Jackie Glass began O.J. Simpson's trial this month for robbing two men at gunpoint, she told jurors: "If you think you are going to punish Mr Simpson for what happened in 1995, this is not the case for you." She, like most sentient beings, probably believed privately that O.J. committed the murders in 1994, but she knew the rule of law was more important than the outcome of any one case, even a murder trial. Second, lighter punishments (such as a suspension from school) often come with a lower standard of judicial review, so you could end up getting an undeserved punishment, in cases where a proper trial for the actual crime at issue might have found that you should not have been punished at all. (Al Capone did get put away for tax evasion, but the court found that he was in fact guilty of tax evasion -- they weren't reaching that as a compromise to avoid trying him for his crimes as a gangster.)
To come clean, however, I have to admit that I have tried to egg judges down that route occasionally. I've taken spammers to court and gotten them to say, under oath, that they never sent any spam and didn't know what I was talking about, before I revealed a tape-recording of a conversation (recorded legally) in which they offered to send 5 million pieces of spam for $500, that the spams were routed out through a server in China to help defeat spam filters, etc. The idea was that the judge would get pissed at the spammer for committing perjury, but realize that it would be too much paperwork to prosecute that, so just bang them over the head with a thousand-dollar judgment for spamming, which would go to me. Unfortunately this can backfire if the judge is so opposed to anti-spam suits that no amount of evidence will convince them anyway. But even if it had worked, it would not be strictly correct to say that justice had been done -- perjury should be punished as perjury, even if only with a slap on the wrist.
So, I'm sure that Judge Munley was trying in his own way to do the right thing by preserving order in the school system, but he probably decided in advance what conclusion to reach, and came up with the arguments after the fact. Still, it may not be a loss for student rights in the long run. The ACLU, which represented the student, has not said whether they will appeal, and anyway, virtually all other caselaw so far has said that student speech off campus is protected, as Judge Munley himself pointed out.