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J.S. v. Blue Mountain School Dist.

September 11, 2008

J.S., A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HER PARENTS, TERRY SNYDER AND STEVEN SNYDER, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THEIR DAUGHTER, PLAINTIFFS
v.
BLUE MOUNTAIN SCHOOL DISTRICT; DR. JOYCE E. ROMBERGER, SUPERINTENDENT BLUE MOUNTAIN SCHOOL DISTRICT; AND JAMES S. MCGONIGLE, PRINCIPAL BLUE MOUNTAIN MIDDLE SCHOOL, BOTH IN THEIR OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley

MEMORANDUM

Before the court for disposition are cross-motions for summary judgment in this civil rights action based upon a school's discipline of a student for creating a false internet profile purporting to be her school principal. The matter has been fully briefed and argued and is ripe for disposition.

Background

On March 18, 2007, a personal profile appeared on the website MySpace.com with the picture of James McGonigle, principal of Defendant Blue Mountain Middles School, which indicated, inter alia, that he is a pedophile and a sex addict. (Doc. 36, MySpace Profile Page). This imposter profile had been created by Plaintiff J.S., a fourteen-year old eighth grade student at Blue Mountain Middle School and her friend K.L., also a student. (Doc. 33-2, Def. Statement of Facts (hereinafter "Def. Facts") at ¶ 6).*fn1 The students created the profile from the home computer owned by J.S.'s parents during non-school hours. (Doc. 35, Pl. Statement of Facts (hereinafter "Pl. Facts") at ¶ 21). The profile did not identify McGonigle by name, but it identified him as a principal and included his picture which had been taken from the school district's website. (Pl. Facts ¶ 17).

The profile described its subject as a forty year old, married, bisexual man living in Alabama. His interests were described as: "detention, being a tight ass, riding the fraintrain, spending time with my child (who looks like a gorilla), baseball, my golden pen, fucking in my office, hitting on students and their parents." It also indicated that he likes television and mainly watches "the playboy channel on directv, OH YEAH BITCH!" (emphasis in original). (Doc. 36, MySpace Profile Page). A statement on the profile has the heading "HELLO CHILDREN." It reads: yes. It's your oh so wonderful, hairy, expressionless, sex addict, fagass, put on this world with a small dick PRINCIPAL I have come to myspace so I can pervert the minds of other principals to be just like me. I know, I know, you're all thrilled. Another reason I came to myspace is because I am keeping an eye on you students who I care for so much) For those who want to be my friend, and aren't in my school, 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) MY FRAINTRAIN so please feel free to add me, message me whatever" (Id.).

The address or " url" for the profile includes the phrase "kids rock my bed." (Id.). Although the students created the profile at J.S.'s home, news of it soon spread to the school. The next day students were already discussing the website at school, and K.L. told five to eight students about the profile. (Def. Facts ¶ ¶ 28, 30). Additionally, five to six students approached K.L. and inquired about the profile. (Def. Facts ¶ 29). Discussion of the website continued through the day, and there was a general "buzz" in the school with quite a few people knowing about it. (Def. Facts ¶ ¶ 31-32).

Plaintiff J.S. asserts that approximately a day after the profile was created it was set to "private." A MySpace profile set to "private" may only be viewed by those who receive permission from the profile's creator. (Pl. Facts ¶ 18). After it was made private, J.S. and K.L. granted access to twenty-two individuals to view the profile. (Pl. Facts ¶ 19). Plaintiff asserts that the profile was set to private "approximately" one day after it was created. One day after its creation would have been Monday, March 19, 2007. McGonigle, however was evidently able to access the site on his work computer on Wednesday, March 21, 2008. (McGonigle Dep. At 54-55).

The subject of the imposter profile, McGonigle, heard about it first on Monday, March 19, 2007. (Def. Facts ¶ 33). The next day, he was informed that the profile contained very disturbing comments about him. (Def. Facts ¶ 34). On that same day, at least one teacher approached McGonigle to inform him that students were discussing the profile in class. (Def. Facts ¶ 35).

On the following day, Wednesday, March 20, 2007, a student provided McGonigle with a printout of the profile. (Def. Facts ¶ 37). McGonigle also learned on that day that J.S. and K.L. were involved with the creation of the profile. (Def. Facts ¶ 36).

J.S. was absent from school on March 21, 2007. (Def. Facts ¶ 38). The next day, McGonigle called her to the office and met with her in the presence of the guidance counselor, Michelle Guers. (Def. Fact ¶ ¶ 39-40). Initially, J.S. denied any involvement with the imposter profile. Eventually, however, she admitted that she had created it with K.L. (Def. Facts ¶ ¶ 41-42). McGonigle then spoke with the parents of both J.S. and K.L. regarding the profile. (Def. Facts ¶ 43). He also contacted MySpace.com to have the profile removed. (Def. Facts ¶ 44).

Based upon the creation of the imposter profile, McGonigle determined that J.S. had violated the school discipline code which prohibits the making of false accusations against school staff members. (Def. Facts ¶ 51). He found it was also a violation of the district's computer use policy which informs students that they cannot use copyrighted material without permission from the agency or website from where they obtained it.

(D.Facts ¶ ¶ 51, 46).*fn2 This policy was violated according to the district because the students had obtained the photo of McGonigle from the school's website and the district has the sole permission to use and display photographs contained on that website. (Def. Facts ¶ 53).

Plaintiff received a ten (10) day out-of-school suspension because she had created the website. (Def. Facts ¶ 54).*fn3 During the suspension, J.S.'s school assignments were brought to her home. (Def. Facts ¶ 57).

Prior to this incident, J.S.'s only other discipline had been in December 2006 and February 2007, for dress code violations. (Pl. Facts ¶ 14). Plaintiff had the opportunity to appeal the discipline she received to the school superintendent and the school board. (Def. Facts ¶ 62). She evidently did not take advantage of this opportunity.

Plaintiffs instead instituted the instant case. They aver that the First Amendment precludes the school district from excluding a student from classes for two weeks for the profile which is non-threatening, non-obscene and a parody. They claim that the Constitution prohibits the school district from disciplining a student's out-of-school conduct that does not cause a disruption of classes or school administration. They further allege that the defendants' actions violate Plaintiff Terry and Steven Snyder's rights as parents to determine how best to raise, nurture, discipline and educate their children in violation of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The plaintiffs bring suit pursuant to the Civil Rights Statute of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Upon filing the complaint plaintiffs also filed a motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. We denied the motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on March 29, 2007, and the case proceeded through discovery. (Doc. 7, Doc. 26). At the close of discovery, both the plaintiffs and the defendants moved for summary judgment, bringing the case to its present posture. During the briefing of the motions for summary judgment, the plaintiffs stipulated to the ...


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