High school students are allowed to practice free speech online and are protected, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled this week. A three-judge panel ruled on Monday that even if the speech is laden with expletives, what a student says against school policy or against the state is protected under both the US Constitution and the Indiana State Constitution.
The student, only named as A.B. in court documents, was originally sentenced to probation for six counts of harassment based off of comments she made on a MySpace page. The comments were posted to a fake profile created by another student posing as the principal of the school, and they were focused mostly around A.B.'s dislike of the high school's policies and principal. She clearly indicated in her comments that she was aware that the profile was not real and that she was "pretty sure" she knew who created it. The principal, Shawn Gobert, testified that he never received any of the messages directly and only observed them as he was reading through the fake profile page.
Although A.B. ultimately made six separate comments on the profile expressing her distaste, one comment became the main focus of the case against her:
Hey you piece of greencastle sh*t.
What the f*ck do you think of me [now] that you can['t] control me? Huh?
Ha ha ha guess what I'll wear my f*cking piercings all day long and to
school and you can['t] do sh*t about it! Ha ha f*cking ha! Stupid bastard!
Oh, and kudos to whomever made this ([I'm] pretty sure I know who).
Get a background.
While the comments come off as typical of an angry teenager, the juvenile court decided that A.B. was a "delinquent child" and sentenced her to nine months of probation.
However, the Court of Appeals disagreed. "A.B. asserts that her message, made in a public forum and criticizing Gobert, a state actor, in implementing a school policy proscribing decorative piercings is a legitimate communication envisioned within the bounds of protected political speech," wrote the judges. "A.B. openly criticizes Gobert's imposed school policy on decorative body piercings and forcefully indicates her displeasure with it. While we have little regard for A.B.'s use of vulgar epithets, we conclude that her overall message constitutes political speech."
The ruling goes on: "The State failed to produce any evidence that A.B.'s expression inflicted particularized harm analogous to torturous injury on readily identifiable private interests as required to rebut A.B.'s claim of political speech. […] Therefore, we hold that A.B.'s conviction for harassment contravened her right to speak, as guaranteed by the Indiana Constitution."
The judges' decision sets a precedent for other minors who may avoid posting their opinions online for fear of being smacked down by the state. Such a decision, however, does not seem like it would apply to other MySpace-principal harassment cases, such as that of a Pennsylvania principal who continues to have new fake profiles created about him that accuse him of sleeping with students, engaging in domestic violence, and doing drugs. However, as long as the comments are not directly threatening and/or libelous, it appears as if teenagers can expect some degree of Constitutional protection online after all.