(CN) - The 3rd Circuit reached opposite conclusions in two cases involving students who created fake MySpace profiles for their principals. The rulings hinged on whether the profiles created a substantial disruption of school.
In the first case, Justin Layshock used his grandmother's computer to post a phony profile of his high-school principal, Eric Trosch. Layshock posted fake answers to online surveys and listed Trosch's interests as "Transgender, Appreciators of Alcoholic Beverages." He also listed "Steroids International" as a club Trosch belonged to.
Word of the profile spread quickly among students at Hickory High School in Hermitage, Pa. Students soon created three other bogus profiles of Trosch on MySpace, each more vulgar and offensive than Layschock's.
But Layshock was the only student punished for his profile. He was suspended for 10 days, placed in an alternative program for the rest of the year, banned from extracurricular activities and barred from attending graduation.
The student in the second case, J.S., an eighth grader at Blue Mountain Middle School in Orwigsburg, Pa., was also suspended for 10 days for posting a profile insinuating that her principal was a sex addict and pedophile.
In the "General Interests" section, J.S. listed "being a tight ass," "spending time with my child (who looks like a gorilla)" and "hitting on students and their parents."
In the "About Me" section, J.S. wrote, "For those who want to be my friend ... I love children, sex (any kind), dogs, long walks on the beach, tv, being a dick head, and last but not least my darling wife who looks like a man (who satisfies my needs)."
J.S. allegedly created the profile because she was "mad" at her principal, James McGonigle, for the way he handled a dress code violation.
Both J.S. and Layshock had used photos of their principals from school Web sites.
The students and their parents sued over the schools' punishments, claiming it violated their constitutional rights, because the offense had taken place off school grounds.
Two appellate panels in Philadelphia differed on whether the punishments were appropriate.
In J.S.' case, the three-judge panel sided with the school district, saying the profile "presented a reasonable possibility of a future disruption."
"We are especially concerned about the profile's blatant allusions to McGonigle engaging in sexual misconduct," Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote, as such behavior is "clearly inappropriate for a middle school principal and illegal for any adult."
"The girls embarrassed, belittled, and possibly defamed McGonigle," Fisher added. "They created the profile not as a personal, private, or anonymous expression of frustration or anger, but as a public means of humiliating McGonigle before those who knew him in the context of his role as middle school principal."
But in Layshock's case, the profile "did not result in any substantial disruption," the panel ruled.
"We have found no authority that would support punishment for creating such a profile unless it results in foreseeable and substantial disruption of school," Judge Theodore McKee wrote.
However, the panel ruled for the Hermitage School District on Layschock's parents' due process claims.
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