Third Circuit Splits Itself On MySpace First Amendment Cases — Or Does It?

[UPDATE: On June 13, 2011, the Third Circuit en banc reversed (on a vote of 8 to 6) the J.S. opinion below. More commentary at Constitutional Law Prof here. Opinion here. There's a fair chance of the Supreme Court granting certiorari in J.S. given the breadth of the holding. It's undoubtedly a victory for students' free speech rights, but the current Supreme Court might not be as supportive of such a blanket rule in favor of off-campus speech.]

As Howard Bashman reports (along with many others, such as The Legal Intelligencer), yesterday two separate panels on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit simultaneously issued opinions in separate cases in which public-school students created prank MySpace pages about school administrators, were disciplined, and then brought suit alleging violations of their free speech rights.

The opinion in Layshock v. Hermitage School District is here. The opinion in J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District is here

In Layshock, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the student. In J.S., the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the school district.

On appeal, Layshock still won, J.S. still lost.

So how did that happen?

Different facts.

Both panels worked off the same law. In Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 513 (1969), the Supreme Court held that student expression may not be suppressed unless school officials reasonably conclude that it will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” In Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675, 678, 683 (1986), the Court upheld the school’s suspension of a high school student for delivering a nominating speech at a school assembly using “an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor” because "[t]he schools, as instruments of the state, may determine that the essential lessons of civil, mature conduct cannot be conveyed in a school that tolerates lewd, indecent, or offensive speech."

At the Third Circuit, the Layshock panel noted:

At the outset, it is important to note that the district court found that the District could not “establish[] a sufficient nexus between Justin’s speech and a substantial disruption of the school environment[,]” Layshock, 496 F. Supp. 2d at 600, and the School District’s does not challenge that finding on appeal.

That killed the School District’s argument. Layshock held that, without the nexus, the District had no authority to punish the student.

The J.S. panel described the distinction between its opinion and Layshock:

A separate appeal dealing with school discipline of a student who created a MySpace profile of his principal was filed simultaneously in our Court. See Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., Nos. 07-4465 & 07-4555, slip op. (3d Cir. Feb. 4, 2010). However, upon review of the holding in that case, as set forth in that panel’s opinion, we find the two cases distinguishable.

Unlike the instant case, the school district in Layshock did not argue on appeal that there was, under Tinker, a nexus between the student’s speech and a substantial disruption of the school environment. Id. at Part IV.A.1. This nexus, under Tinker, is the basis of our holding in the instant case. Rather, the Layshock panel held that the school district failed to establish that a sufficient nexus existed between the student’s creation and distribution of the profile and the school district so that the district was permitted to regulate the student’s conduct. Id. at Part IV.A.2. That panel also held, under Frazer, that the student’s speech could not be considered “on-campus” speech just because it was targeted at the Principal and other members of the school community and it was reasonably foreseeable that school district and Principal would learn about the MySpace profile. Id. at Part IV.A.3.

In litigation and trial, "winning on the law" is important. It’s necessary to win the case.

But winning on the law isn’t sufficient by itself to win a case.

Facts win cases. Layshock won the facts. J.S. didn’t.

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  • http://blog.martindale.com Mike Mintz

    This is a great post – thanks Max. So the standard the 3rd Circuit requires then is “a nexus between the student’s speech and a substantial disruption of the school environment.” Did the court give any criteria for establishing this? Having skimmed the case I only saw language about a foreseeability standard. Did they give any other guidance in establishing this nexus?