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J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, 807 A.2d 803 (Pa. 2002)

Facts:

A middle school student created his own Web site, which contained derogatory comments about his algebra teacher and the school principal. The site featured a picture of the teacher’s head dripping with blood, showed her face morphing into Adolf Hitler, and contained language offering money to find a hit man to kill the teacher. The teacher allegedly suffered extreme distress after learning of the site. The site also contained derogatory comments about the principal.

The school suspended the student and then brought expulsion proceedings against him. The student argued that the web site contained mere hyperbole and was not a true threat.

Issue:

Whether school officials could punish a student for his derogatory and allegedly threatening online comments about a teacher.

Holding:

In a 6-0 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that school officials could punish the student because the student's web site created a substantial disruption of school activities.

Reasoning:

The state high court first reasoned that the student's comments did not constitute a true threat, finding the web site to be a "sophomoric, crude, highly offensive and perhaps misguided attempt at humor." However, the court still ruled in favor of the school district because the student's web site had a "demoralizing impact on the school community." First, the court determined that school officials were justified in punishing the student for his web site, even though it was created off-campus, because there was a "sufficient nexus between the web site and the school campus to consider the speech as occurring on-campus." The court then determined that the school district's actions were protected by both the Fraser standard of lewd and offensive speech, and the Tinker standard of substantial disruption. "In sum," the court wrote, "the web site created disorder and significantly and adversely impacted the delivery of instruction."

Majority:

"Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court has not revisited this area [of First Amendment rights of public school students] for fifteen years. Thus, the breadth and contour of these cases and their application to differing circumstances continues to evolve. Moreover, the advent of the Internet has complicated analysis of restrictions on speech. Indeed, Tinker's simple armband, worn silently and brought into a Des Moines, Iowa classroom, has been replaced by J.S.'s complex multi-media web site, accessible to fellow students, teachers, and the world." (Justice Ralph J. Cappy)



Last updated: Thursday, August 16, 2018 | 13:27:06