Courts considering speech that occurs off school grounds have concluded (relying on decision from the Supreme Court of the United States) that school officials' authority over off-campus expression is much more limited than expression on school grounds.
Plaintiff Zachariah Paul was a student at Franklin Regional High School during the 1998-1999 school year. During March of 1999, Paul, apparently angered by a denial of a student parking permit and the imposition of various rules and regulations for members of the track team, published a "top ten" list ("Bozzuto list") about the school athletic director, Robert Bozzuto. The list included statements regarding the Bozzuto's appearance, including the size of his genitals. Several weeks later, several individuals found copies of the Bozzuto Top Ten list in the Franklin Regional High School teachers' lounge and the Franklin Regional Middle School. An undisclosed student had reformatted Paul's original e-mail and distributed the document on school grounds. Subsequently, Paul was called to a meeting with Richard Plutto (principal), Thomas Graham (assistant principal), and Bozzuto. Upon questioning, Paul admitted that he had created the contents of the Top Ten list and that he had e-mailed it to the home computers of several friends from his home computer. However, Paul steadfastly denied bringing the list on school grounds. Plutto or Graham instructed Paul to bring a copy of the original e-mail message the next day. Paul agreed and was allowed to return to his class. However, the next day, Paul, together with his mother, was informed by the school principal that Paul was being suspended for ten days because the list contained offensive remarks about a school official, was found on school grounds, and that Paul admitted creating the list. Thereafter, Paul, through his parents, commenced an action in the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas, Pennsylvania, against the defendant Franklin Regional School District ("District") seeking immediate reinstatement raising cliams under the Plaintiffs sued on First and Fourteenth Amendment. The parties subsequently entered a settlement agreement wherein Paul agreed to withdraw the complaint in exchange for the District's agreement to provide Paul with the due process outlined in the Pennsylvania School Code. That evening, at about 10:15 p.m., Paul's counsel received a faxed letter notifying Paul of a suspension hearing the following morning at 9:00 a.m.
Did the District, by suspending Paul from class, violate Paul's constitutional rights?
According to the Supreme Court of the United States, the suspension violated the First Amendment because the District and other defendants failed to satisfy Tinker's substantial disruption test. First, defendants failed to adduce any evidence of actual disruption. There was no evidence that teachers were incapable of teaching or controlling their classes because of the List. The List was on school grounds for several days before the administration became aware of its existence, and at least one week passed before defendants took any action. According to the Court, the speech, although upsetting, was not threatening. The Court therefore concluded that the policy was overbroad because it could be interpreted to prohibit protected speech.