PITTSBURGH — A western Pennsylvania school district violated a student's First Amendment free-speech rights when it punished him for parodying his principal on an Internet site outside of school, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry said Hermitage School District in Mercer County failed to show then-senior Justin Layshock's parody profile of then-Hickory High School Principal Eric W. Trosch on MySpace.com substantially disrupted school operations.
"The school's right to maintain an environment conducive to learning does not trump Justin's First Amendment right to freedom of expression based on the evidentiary record in this case," McVerry ruled in Layshock v. Hermitage School District on July 10.
"The mere fact that the Internet may be accessed at school does not authorize school officials to become censors of the World Wide Web," McVerry wrote in his opinion. "Public schools are vital institutions, but their reach is not unlimited."
McVerry also said that "while the profile is certainly juvenile and lacks serious value," it was not obscene, as district officials claimed.
Layshock had used his grandmother's computer in December 2005 to create the unflattering profile that said Trosch smoked marijuana and kept a keg of beer behind his desk.
The district suspended Layshock on Jan. 6, 2006, for 10 days, and sent him to an alternative program. He also was prohibited from attending his graduation ceremony, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
McVerry had refused in January 2006 to order the school to let Layshock return. The district eventually let Layshock come back and he graduated in 2006.
The ACLU sued the school district, Superintendent Karen Ionta, Trosch and co-principal Chris Gill on Layshock's behalf. On July 10, McVerry dismissed Ionta, Trosch and Gill from the case, but said a trial was necessary to determine compensatory damages.
"It is a correct, appropriate and straight forward application of the important First Amendment principle that limits the school district's authority to punish students for their speech," said attorney Kim Watterson, representing the ACLU and Layshock.
A message left for the school district's attorney, Anthony Sanchez, was not returned yesterday afternoon.
In April, Trosch sued Layshock and three other former students in connection with other alleged parody profiles on MySpace. That case is pending.
Layshock, who finished his freshman year at St. John's University in New York, could not be reached for comment because he is spending the summer volunteering at an orphanage in Togo, Watterson said.