Judge upholds discipline for mock MySpace page

Penn. middle school student made profile mocking principal

PENNSYLVANIA -- A U.S. District Court judge ruled Sept. 11 against a middle-school student who was suspended for 10 days for creating a MySpace page mocking her school principal as a pedophile and sex addict.

Jill Snyder and her parents filed a complaint in federal court in March 2007, when Jill was 14, alleging Snyder's First Amendment rights were violated. The parents also claimed their Fourteenth Amendment rights as parents were violated by the Blue Mountain School District in determining how ''best to raise, nurture, discipline and educate their (child).''

Snyder's attorneys argued the First Amendment protected her actions because they were ''non-threatening, non-obscene and a parody.''

Judge James M. Munley wrote in his opinion that the arguments fell into three categories: 1) Were Snyders' First Amendment rights violated by the school?; 2) Were the district's policies unconstitutionally vague and overbroad?; 3) And did the school violate the Snyder's parental rights?

Munley rejected all three arguments citing Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which says students and teachers do not ''shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'' The judge found Tinker inapplicable because the MySpace page was not considered political speech, unlike the political protest censored by school officials in Tinker.

Munley instead analyzed Snyder's speech under three different student speech rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court: Bethel School District v. Fraser, which said public schools could ''prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse;'' Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which said ''educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of speech so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate, pedagogical concerns''

and Morse v. Frederick, which ruled that school officials could censor a student's speech that was ''reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.''

Munley wrote that Snyder's speech was ''more akin to the lewd vulgar speech addressed in Fraser. It is also akin to the speech that promoted illegal actions in the Morse


He went further on to say that in Snyder's case ''there can be no doubt that the speech used is vulgar and lewd.''

The MySpace page described Principal James S. McGonigle's general interest as ''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.''

On the ''About me'' section, it described McGonigle as

''your oh so wonderful, hairy, expressionless, sex addict, fagass, put on this world with a small dick PRINCIPAL.'' A school district photo of McGonigle was used to identify him. A customized Web address was made for the profile page, as well: www.myspace.com/kidsrockmybed.

While Munley acknowledged there was a blur when it came to on and off-campus speech, he applied a 1976 district court case that upheld school jurisdiction over off-campus student speech. Munley cited Fenton v. Stear, where the court ruled ''when a high school student refers to a high school teacher in a public place on a Sunday by a lewd and obscene name in such a loud voice that the teacher and others hear the insult, it may be deemed a matter for discipline in the discretion of the school authorities.''

Munley ruled that the school was not in error when they suspended Snyder since she brought copies of the MySpace page to the school. And therefore, the school did not violate her parents' rights since Snyder's ''actions were not merely personal home activities.''

Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Snyders' attorney, said she plans to file an appeal with the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

''We thought the decision was quite out-of-line with the law,'' Roper said. ''The judge has essentially ruled that a student who curses about a teacher any place, any time can be suspended for that. We don't feel that is consistent with the Constitution or good sense.''

Blue Mountain School District, news, Pennsylvania