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Free Speech Gone Crazy

Right after I posted Twitter’s response, I ran across this article about two school speech/social media cases decided by the courts recently. In one case, it was Facebook commentary about a school principal that was pretty mild and expressive of the student’s personal opinion. No problem on that one. But this one has more parallels to what I’m dealing with right now.

In a second case, a middle-school girl from a school district in eastern Pennsylvania created a MySpace profile of her principal that was cruder. The girl — who was not identified by name in the ruling — used the principal’s photo, but presented him as a bisexual Alabama middle-school principal named “M-Hoe.” The profile, which she created in 2007, described the principal in coarse terms, and said he “enjoyed hitting on students and their parents.”

The principal was irate. He suspended the girl for 10 days, the same punishment he gave students who took knives to school, and had the state police call her and her parents in to discuss her actions.

[…]
In the case of the middle-school student, Snyder v. Blue Mountain School District, the court said “the profile was so outrageous that no one took its content seriously.” And again, it emphasized that there was no significant disruption at school.

The Layshock ruling was unanimous — all 14 judges agreed his suspension was unconstitutional. In the Snyder case, the court was divided 8-6. The six dissenters were troubled by the graphic language used in the girl’s profile, which they thought could be disruptive and undermine authority at school.

Well yeah. I’d be troubled by that language too. Now imagine that the student had chosen to use that principal’s real name on the MySpace profile with the same content. Would that have been considered “so outrageous that no one took its content seriously”?

That’s the part of the ruling that disturbs me the most. That it was so outrageous no one would take its content seriously. Was that because a pseudonym was attached to the photo? If not, how would they have decided if it had been created using that principal’s real name? And what if that profile were fully discoverable in a Google search?

I don’t have a lot of answers here, but it seems to me there’s a real imbalance between what is ‘free speech’ and what is defamatory speech. Thoughts?

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