Supreme Court: Districts Have No Authority over Students' Out-of-School Speech

Jan 18, 2012

After nearly five years of legal wrangling, the battle over the right of Pennsylvania school districts to punish students for inflammatory internet posts made off-campus has come to an end.

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court declined to review a pair of cases in which students were suspended for creating lewd online satires of their principals, upholding an appelate court decision in favor of the students.

The two districts, Hermitage School District in Mercer County and Blue Mountain School District in Schuylkill County, will now pay damages and court costs for the students.

Vic Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union represented the students. He said principals' authority over students shouldn't encompass out-of-school activities.

"Schools have been given greater authority to restrict what students can say while the students are in school, and the schools are fighting to retain that same kind of authority when the students leave the campus," said Walczak. "Our argument is, once the kids leave the campus, they are back under the care of the parents."

The school districts argued that the online posts disrupted school activities, and thus it was appropriate for administrators to punish the children. That view was adopted by several lower courts before being rejected by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose ruling was upheld by Tuesday's Supreme Court decision.

Walczak said since no nationwide precedent was set, he believes the country's highest court will eventually need to examine the issue. He said none of the current related cases are good candidates for a Supreme Court battle, but he expects one will come along relatively soon.