Can You Trash Your Teacher on Facebook?

But in J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, which involved a bogus profile created by a 14-year-old middle school student, the court found in favor of the school.

Attorney Anthony G. Sanchez of the Pittsburgh-based firm Andrews and Price represented the Hermitage School District in the Layshock case and said part of the problem is the quick march of technology.

Attorney: Law Has Not Kept Up With Technology

"The popularity of the Internet and the use of it to communicate with specific communities -- that didn't exist at the time of the most important decisions relating to the First Amendment in schools," he said.

One of those key cases was Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 suit involving students who were suspended for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.

The ruling in that case said that student speech was protected unless it would "substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school."

According to legal experts, by that ruling, student speech needs to advocate illegal activity or threaten physical harm to justify suppression. Speech that causes discomfort to teachers or administrators isn't disruptive enough, they say.

But that case only dealt with on-campus speech.

Sanchez said the rise of the Internet and online social networks have muddied the waters because now student speech created off-campus and spread online can still have on-campus consequences.

He said if Layshock had created a hard copy of the profile he created online and posted it on a bulletin board at school, the ruling might have been different, even though the content was the same.

Is Supreme Court Decision Needed to Resolve Online Speech Issue?

"It can't all be made on a geographic or territorial basis, but I think that is what's happening," he said.

In 1969, Sanchez continued, using a location analysis for student speech made sense because technology hadn't yet given students the tools to spread school-related messages off-campus.

But now that students spend so much of their personal and academic time online, he said, that analysis no longer fits.

School districts need to balance students' First Amendment rights with disruption or harm to schools and teachers, but given the current legal landscape, he said, "it's a landmine for school districts."

Though he said it's very difficult to predict which cases will attract the attention of the Supreme Court, he said "this is an issue that someday will probably reach the Supreme Court."

"There needs to be specific guidance as to what a school district can and cannot do when off-campus a student directs lewd, vulgar language to school communities about a school individual," he said.

Parent: 'Facebook Has Nothing to Do With School'

Dr. Jerome Melvin, superintendent of the North Syracuse School District in New York, agreed.

In January, when a student at a local middle school created a Facebook group critical of a teacher, the student behind the page as well as all of the students who joined the group were punished by the school, prompting a backlash among some parents.

In defense of the school's decision, at the time, Melvin told the local ABC affiliate, WSYR, "It's really undermining the effectiveness of the teacher as an instructor. ... What people don't understand is what happens away from the school like that can come into the school and disrupt the school environment."

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