The 3rd Circuit has agreed to rehear two seemingly contradictory online student speech cases decided in February (see here for more about the cases). It has vacated the previous opinions and all members of the court will hear arguments in both cases on June 3.
The cases were decided based on the criterion of whether the speech was likely to cause disruption in school. In one of the cases, Layshock v. Hermitage School District, the school district conceded that there was no disruption to the school environment. They argued instead that the student’s online speech was lewd and offensive, had entered the school, and was therefore subject to school authority. The Court, rejected this argument and admonished the school for reaching outside its bounds and into a student’s home.
In the other case, J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, the school and subsequently the court took a different angle. It said that even though there was no actual disruption, one was reasonably possible if the school had not taken action.
It is important to note that the decision concerns speech off campus, at a student’s home. The Court held that “off campus speech that causes or reasonably threatens to cause a substantial disruption of or material interference with a school need not satisfy any geographical technicality in order to be regulated pursuant to Tinker.”
This line of reasoning is a slippery slope that lends itself to the erosion of the boundaries that delineate where the special rules of the schoolhouse begin. If the school’s control can reach a student’s home anytime it thinks there could be a disruption, the extension of school authority is potentially limitless. Students voice all kinds of opinions and at times can be critical. However, they should be allowed to express themselves in their homes, at the very least, without worry about censorship from school officials.
It will be very interesting to see how the Court reconciles these two cases. We can only hope that they listen to their colleagues who decided to limit school authority to school grounds and reaffirm that students have First Amendment rights too – at home and at school. As mentioned in previous posts, the Court needs to send a clear message that students should not be punished by school officials for their off campus speech.