Mark Walsh over at EdWeek’s School Law Blog reported recently that an Indiana Supreme Court has thrown out a case involving a middle school student who posted a tirade against her principal on none other than the social networking site MySpace. The student was charged with harassment for messages she aimed at Greencastle Middle School Principal Shawn Gobert, after a dispute about body piercings. The student also allegedly set up a fake MySpace “group” that included vulgarities and Gobert’s name in the title.
Before getting to the state supreme court, the case was heard by an Indiana trial court, which found the student delinquent on the harassment charges. But then the state appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that the student was protected by the First Amendment.
In its decision on May 13, the state supreme court ruled in favor of the student, but on the basis that the fake MySpace page had never authorized the principal to be one of its viewers. The court also cited Indiana’s harassment statute, which states that a person breaks the law only when they communicate a message with “the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person but with no intent of legitimate communication.”
The student’s postings showed that she clearly wanted to communicate her anger and criticism about the principal’s disciplinary action, the court said, and “merely intended to amuse and gain approval or notoriety from her friends, and/or to generally vent anger for her personal grievances.”
An interesting case that raises all kinds of questions about the First Amendment, the Internet and social networking sites that are still primarily populated by teens.
If you want to read about a fascinating case with similar overtones, check out the New York Magazine’s controversial examination, “Testing Horace Mann,” from its March 30 issue. It’s a disturbing look at the way students used FaceBook, but an even more disturbing examination of the adults involved in the scandal.