Student Off-Campus Facebook Statements are Protected by First Amendment
Two out of three rulings this month indicate that any statements made by students in online sites and while outside the campus are a form of protected speech under the First Amendment of the United States constitution.
The latest ruling concerns a former Florida high school senior who was suspended for bullying her teacher in Facebook two years ago.
Katherine Evans created a Facebook group back then named “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!” The picture of Miss Phelps, her english teacher, was featured in the group’s page. Fellow students were invited to express their feelings of hatred.
“It was an opinion of a student about a teacher, that was published off-campus, did not cause any disruption on-campus, and was not lewd, vulgar, threatening, or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior,” ruled Florida Magistrate Barry Garber. He even stressed out that Miss Evans has all the rights to criticize her teacher even if that means she might face a defamation case.
Evans can now continue to sue her principal, Peter Bayer, for infringing her First Amendment rights by suspending her in late 2007.
Two weeks ago, the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled differently in two similar cases. It both tackled creating mock mySpace accounts of school principals, the second one however insinuated that the principal was a sex addict and a pedophile.
The first case favored the student. The case with the “pedophile” insinuation went against the student.
Their difference? Fellow students in the second case keep talking about it in class instead of listening to their teachers – a sign taken in as on-campus disruption.