Schools that dish out draconian punishments to students who are mean to each other online (aka cyberbullying) risk running afoul of the First Amendment.

Beverly Vista School, a K-8 school in the Beverly Hills Unified School District, learned this lesson via a November 2009 court ruling, where the federal district court for the Central District of California found that administrators at Beverly Vista had likely violated the First Amendment rights of a middle school student referred to in the records as J.C.

The facts in this case arose when J.C., an eighth grade girl, videotaped a group of her friends “talkin’ smack” about their classmate C.C.   The video featured this group of kids saying that C.C. was spoiled, and a slut.   J.C. then when home and uploaded the video to YouTube, and informed several classmates, including C.C., of the video’s existence.

The next day, C.C. and her mother informed the school of the video’s existence.  C.C. also met with a school counselor for no more than half a class period to discuss how she felt humiliated by the video.

School administrators, upon viewing the video, called J.C. out of class, and made her write a statement about the video.  The administrators also demanded that J.C. delete the video from YouTube.  Upon consultation with the school district’s lawyer, the principal suspended J.C. for two days.

J.C. sued the school district, arguing that the school had violated her First Amendment rights and did not have the authority to discipline her over a video made and viewed off campus.

The court characterized the issue in this case as “whether a school can regulate student speech or expression that occurs outside the school gates, and is not connected to a school-sponsored event, but that subsequently makes its way onto campus, either by the speaker or by other means.”

In other words, could the school discipline J.C. for her online speech created outside of school using her own computer and Internet connection?

The court found that while it was reasonably foreseeable that the video, posted on a public website, would be accessed on school grounds, the video did not cause a substantial or material disruption sufficient to justify the school’s suspension of J.C.

This means that while in theory Beverly Vista has the authority to punish students over an online video shared off-campus, in actuality J.C.’s particular example of online off-campus expression was simply not extreme enough to justify the school’s disciplinary actions.

In making this finding, the J.C. court relied on the Supreme Court’s holding in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines where the Court upheld students’ right to free expression in instances where that expression failed to “materially and substantially disrupt[] the work and discipline of the school.”

Here, the court found that under the standards set forth in Tinker and subsequent cases in lower courts, J.C.’s video had not caused a disruption substantial enough to merit the school’s decision to suspend her.

As the court explained, “the word ‘substantial’ must equate to something more than the ordinary personality conflicts among middle school students that may leave one student feeling hurt or insecure.”

While J.C.’s video had been mean, and had hurt classmate C.C.’s feelings, the video did not represent speech extraordinary in the middle school social context.

The court, in finding for J.C., concluded that,

The Court does not take issue with Defendants’ argument that young students often say hurtful things to each other, and that students with limited maturity may have emotional conflicts over even minor comments. However, to allow the School to cast this wide a net and suspend a student simply because another student takes offense to their speech, without any evidence that such speech caused a substantial disruption of the school’s activities, runs afoul of Tinker.

J.C.’s win affirms our position that peer-on-peer cyberbullying is an issue that is best dealt with through education and not punishment.  As J.C.’s lawsuit demonstrates, when schools attempt to punish this form of cyberbullying, students’ rights of free expression are compromised.

For more information on this case:

Slate’s coverage

L.A. Times’ coverage

Student Press Law Center’s coverage