Legal Transgressions and Material Disruption

A stable society is governed by certain fundamental principles that are easily understood, and agreed upon, by reasonable people. These elemental concepts are typically formalized by law, though reasonable people are unlikely to require it. They don't need to be told what's right and wrong; they already know the difference, and will conduct themselves accordingly. One of these fundamental concepts involves telling the truth, and more to the point of this discussion, refusing to initiate or propagate lies about someone else. The law calls this slander, or libel if it's in written form.

That's a revelation to no one, but it illustrates the frustrating simplicity of the underlying principle. It shouldn't require legal interpretation any more than the question of what constitutes a personal threat. The definition of illegal activity in general is plain: if there's a law against it, it's illegal. For the high-school student involved in publishing a paper, newsletter, Web site or blog, the basic rules of engagement are identical to those that apply to everyone: libel, threats, or involvement in illegal activity will get you in trouble. Writing about a fellow student's—or teacher's—involvement in the KKK when there's no such involvement, your desire to cause physical harm, or your intent to distribute drugs or weapons isn't considered protected speech; it's imprudent, and possibly stupid, but it isn't a first-amendment right. In any case, this legal transgression category isn't difficult to identify.

Students are subject to an additional rule, which prohibits causing material disruption to the orderly affairs of an educational institution. What constitutes disruption is the subject of debate, and a question that frequently requires interpretation and resolution by the courts. According to the Student Press Law Center's CyberGuide, certain categories of expression generally aren't considered materially disruptive.

In the Internet context, "material disruption" has been found not to include harsh criticisms of school, teachers, and administrators or the posting of mock obituaries as a joke between a group of friends.

On the other hand, encouraging other students to violate school rules, calls for walkouts or protests, or false announcements of cancelled classes are examples of actions that could be considered materially disruptive to a school's learning environment. Ridicule or humiliation, whether aimed at students or staff, may result in disruption as well.

Pointed ridicule or statements aimed at humiliating particular groups of students or individuals can play into the hands of school officials as well, who may argue that such insults may lead to disruptions at school. Case-in-point is again J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, where the court found that the student's depiction of his teacher's head dripping with blood and morphing into Hitler along with an invitation for readers to contribute to the hiring of a hit man caused her to be too afraid to return to school. The court found that the site was disruptive enough to make necessary the hiring of a substitute for the [remainder] of the school year.

There are other points to consider, of course. School sponsorship of the student's written efforts, whether the school is public or private, and educational level—e.g. high school versus college—make a world of difference in how the law is applied.


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