In a decision with repercussions for the burgeoning number of Facebook-ing and MySpace-ing teens, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled this week that high school students’ free speech is protected by both the U.S. and Indiana State Constitution, even if the students’ words are expletive-ridden or against school policy.
This court decision has huge ramifications for student expression on the Web, including us bloggers. The case focuses around a student only referred to as A.B. in court papers who was originally sentenced to 9 months of probation on six counts of harassment stemming from comments she made on MySpace highly critical of the school principal, Shawn Gobert. Juvenile court went so far as to declare her to be “a delinquent child.”
The comments were posted to the supposed profile of Gobert, a page actually created by a classmate of A.B.’s, something she knew when posting her comments. She said she was even “pretty sure” which student created the online effigy. In light of this, the Court of Appeals held that A.B.’s virtual diatribe was in fact a form of “political speech,” and thus protected under the Bill of Rights.
The Court wrote: “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. 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.”
Notably, the Court ruling went on to say that because the State could not produce any evidence that A.B.’s words were specifically harmful to Gobert or anyone else, her words were still protected: “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.”
While A.B.’s comments were not found libelous, this ruling falls short of being a free license to curse out mean principals online. It is, however, a watershed moment in Internet freedom of speech rights, particularly for youth. While this decision sets a precedent for the thousands of other minors posting their opinions online who fear legal retribution, this decision does not promise protection in all cases. For example, one Pennsylvania principal is the victim of incessant– and libelous– attacks from kids who create profiles claiming he is sleeping with students, etc. The key difference between that case and the ruling on A.B. is that A.B. was neither threatening nor libelous in her content. Despite the risky tone and extensive cursing, she successfully navigated her way safely through legal ruin. So long as students speak their mind in this sort of manner, it appears as if teenagers can expect some degree of Constitutional protection online after all.
As bloggers, we all have a vested interest in the free communication of ideas that has become the Internet. It is one of the basic tenets by which we, along with MySpace high school students like A.B., write our text and discover our content.