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Law School Case Brief

Kowalski v. Berkeley Cty. Sch. - 652 F.3d 565 (4th Cir. 2011)

Rule:

A student may be disciplined for expressive conduct, even conduct occurring off school grounds, when this conduct would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment, at least when it was similarly foreseeable that the off-campus expression might also reach campus.

Facts:

When Kara Kowalski was a senior at Musselman High School in Berkeley County, West Virginia, school administrators suspended her from school for five days for creating and posting a MySpace.com webpage called "S.A.S.H.," which Kowalski claims stood for "Students Against Sluts Herpes" and which was largely dedicated to ridiculing a fellow student. Kowalski commenced an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Berkeley County School District and five of its officers, contending that in disciplining her, the defendants violated her free speech and due process rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. She alleged, among other things, that the School District was not justified in regulating her speech because it did not occur during a "school-related activity," but rather was "private out-of-school speech." The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the school administrators, concluding that they were authorized to punish Kowalski because her webpage was "created for the purpose of inviting others to indulge in disruptive and hateful conduct," which caused an "in-school disruption."

Issue:

By punishing the student for creating a webpage dedicated to ridiculing a classmate, did the school administrators violate the student’s constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The appellate court determined that the student's First Amendment claim failed because the nexus of her speech to the school's pedagogical interests was sufficiently strong to justify the action taken by administrators in carrying out their role as the trustees of the student body's well-being. Moreover, the Court held that the speech was materially and substantially disruptive in that it interfered with the school's work and collided with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone, and it was foreseeable that her conduct would reach the school. The Court further ruled that the student's due process claim failed because she was on notice that administrators could regulate and punish the conduct at issue. The Court also ruled that the administrators were not required to provide a more extensive opportunity to allow her to justify her conduct since she admitted her conduct.

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