Home Supreme Court Offers No Help To Schools Looking To Clarify Online Speech Policies

Supreme Court Offers No Help To Schools Looking To Clarify Online Speech Policies

The U.S. Supreme Court will not hear a case this term that could have clarified the authority schools have over students and their use of social media when they’re not in school.

On Tuesday, the court said it would not hear appeals on the suspension of a West Virginia student who ridiculed another student or a lower court’s decision to overturn a Pennsylvania school district’s suspension of a student who posted comments about her principal online. Officials on both sides of the issue saw the high court’s decision as a setback, as it means it will be at least another year before the Supreme Court offers clarity to an issue that has divided lower courts.

A ruling by the Supreme Court on any of the cases it was asked to hear may have also updated a Vietnam-era free speech ruling that has become dated in the Internet age. The 1969 ruling applied to on-campus speech that would “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” More recently, however, the ruling in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District has been interpreted to give schools authority over comments students make on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social networks, regardless of the student’s physical location when the comments are posted.

Lower courts have been ambiguous at best on trying to settle rules on what online speech schools can and cannot regulate. The 2011 case the Supreme Court was asked to review comes from the 3rd District Court of Appeals and involves a decision in favor of a student who had been suspended by a Pennsylvania School District for posting critical comments about her principal online.

One year earlier, however, the same court upheld the suspension of a student who had created a fake MySpace profile insinuating a principal was a sex addict and a pedophile.

Both the lower court and the National School Boards Association have asked the court to review the case, and consider abandoning Tinker, which is no longer relevant in the Internet age.

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