Law School Case Brief
J.S. v. Blue Mt. Sch. Dist. - 650 F.3d 915 (3d Cir. 2011)
Neither the United States Supreme Court nor the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ever allowed schools to punish students for off-campus speech that is not school-sponsored or at a school-sponsored event and that caused no substantial disruption at school.
J.S., a minor, was suspended for creating, on a weekend and on her home computer, an internet "profile" making fun of her principal, James McGonigle, with adult language and sexually explicit content. But, it indisputably caused no substantial disruption in school and could not reasonably have led school officials to forecast substantial disruption. J.S. limited access to her and her friends. While it contained the principal's picture, it did not identify him by name, school, or location. It was never taken seriously or viewable at school. J.S. and her parents, Terry and Steven Snyder, sued the school district under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law, alleging that the suspension violated J.S.'s First Amendment free speech rights, that the school district's policies were unconstitutionally overbroad and vague, that the school district violated the Snyders' Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights to raise their child, and that the school district acted outside of its authority in punishing J.S. for out-of-school speech.
Did the school violate J.S’ First Amendment free speech rights?
The Court held that an undifferentiated fear of disturbance was insufficient to overcome free speech rights. J.S.’ First Amendment free speech rights were violated when she was suspended from school for speech that indisputably caused no substantial disruption in school and that could not reasonably have led school officials to forecast substantial disruption in school. But, nothing forced or prevented the parents from reaching their own disciplinary decision, nor were they forced to approve or disapprove of the conduct. The Fourteenth Amendment claim failed. The student handbook was explicitly limited to in-school speech, thus, the policies were not unconstitutionally overbroad. The policies clearly defined when and where they applied, with specific examples, and articulated a comprehensible normative standard. They were not facially unconstitutional for vagueness.
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