Principal sues ex-students

It probably seemed like a hoot at the time: Four students at a Pennsylvania high school posted MySpace profiles of their principal, portraying him as “a pot smoker, beer guzzler and pornography lover,” reports ZDNet. Now the principal has filed a defamation lawsuit against the former students.

One profile, which the complaint claims was created by a student named Thomas Cooper, listed an unnamed pornographic flick as Trosch’s favorite movie, according to the complaint. Another profile, allegedly posted by students Christopher and Brendan Gebhart, claimed he “liked to have sex with students and brutalize women.” A third profile said he “kept a keg of beer behind his desk at school, was on steroids, and smoked marijuana,” the court filing said.

The parents of profiler number 3 are suing the principal and the school district because their son was suspended from school and transferred to “an alternative education program that allegedly prevented him from progressing with his normal coursework.”

That complaint argues the school’s actions were excessive, violated Layshock’s First Amendment free-speech rights, and interfered with his parents’ freedom to judge how best to raise and educate their son.

I’m with the principal on this one. There’s no free-speech right to defamation.

About Joanne


  1. Marshall says:

    I’m not with the principal on this one.

    If he/she wants to file a defamation suit, that’s great. I hope he wins, and collects the big bucks.

    However, to suspend the kids (and transfer them out of the school) because of something that they did out of school is wrong in my eyes.

  2. When what they do out of school has a *direct* influence on what happens in school, I can agree with the suspension. This certainly fits the bill. The teacher-student (or principal-student) relationship doesn’t end when school is out.

  3. Charles R. Williams says:

    Defaming a principal, or harrassing the principal’s family or vandalizing the principal’s car because he is the principal affects the school community. They got off easy. They should have been expelled if they had no evidence to back up their charges.

    As for the parents, one wonders if they are willing to assume responsibility for the damages their children caused in trashing the reputation of a professional. Instead they run to make excuses for the inexcusable behavior of their children.

    This is not a free speech issue.

  4. Andrew H. says:

    Is creating a fictional internet profile really defamation? I doubt that the students were actually implying that he did anything close to this or that anyone viewing the profile would see it as anything more than a joke. This is completely different from making a formal accusation about the principal or writing a bad attempt at humor into a newspaper column. Can’t we all agree that we should not be taking internet profiles this seriously?

  5. I agree with Andrew H. How is this defamation? It’s not (AFAIK) presented as fact (most absolutely ridiculous profiles aren’t…), and you’d have to be seriously stupid to take it as such. Was the principal’s rep actually harmed by the profile? Of course, I am not a lawyer, and I don’t know the intricacies of defamation/slander/libel lawsuits, but it seems like this falls more squarely on the side of parody (or: Very Clearly Fake) than anything else.

  6. I have read that Internet profiles and other personal information are searched for, noted by prospective employers and landlords for weeding out candidates. I am not in the personnel business so I do not have first hand knowledge of this.

    Why would an employer not take a phony profile as genuine if they can find other good candidates without negative information?

    How could someone refute a phony profile that is keeping them from finding a job or an apartment?

  7. Given the use of Myspace by the high schoolers that my niece goes to school with, it’s akin to printing a flyer with similar information off campus and posting it at school for the campus to see. Whether it’s a “joke” or not, it should be punishable and they should learn a lesson. Additionally, shame on the parents.

  8. Half Canadian says:

    Agreed. Suspend them, kick them to an alternative school, and sue them for all they’ll be worth. What they did was actionable, and it should be treated like that.

  9. Miller Smith says:

    Alright folks…if the principal had left the kids he was suing in his school and one of those students came up for suspension on another charge later, we would be here fussing at the school system for allowing a conflict of interest to occur by having the person suing the students in charge of them.

    We would not be nice to that system.

    I had a student steal and sell a camera once. I sued the parent. The school switched his class to another teacher the very dayd I had the mother served. Would anyone here have insisted that that student be kept in my classes for me to control his grade and discipline reports?

  10. “Why would an employer not take a phony profile as genuine if they can find other good candidates without negative information?”

    Well, I guess that could happen if the employer happened to be a moron…

  11. The principal is, perhaps, a bit thin-skinned — perhaps — but that is his prerogative and I’m not sure how many of us would be unscathed by such an assault of our character….

    Since when have students enjoyed the right to their pranks with impunity?

    It is one thing for children to make their teachers and administrators more accountable by publicizing unflattering but true accounts, audio, and video of educational malpractice. It is another thing to defame people.

    My guess is that there are thousands of such bogus MySpace profiles, many created by students of teachers and administrators (I know of at least three at my school alone). Most of these go ignored. The adults, if they are aware of them, roll our eyes and stoically get on with things….

    But is it such a giant step backward for humanity to draw the line and saw enough of these mean-spirited maybe-funny attacks?

  12. Imagine your photo on MySpace with a load of bogus personal information meant to revile you. Is it really no big deal? The spoiled smart-asses that perpetrated this “funny” hoax must be expelled if, for no other reason, we want to teach children to be civil in an ever increasingly uncivil society.

  13. The principal won’t receive any damages, and the judge may dismiss his case. Do we remember what Larry Flint said about Jerry Falwell? The SCOTUS ruled unanimously in Flint’s favor because what he said was so extreme no reasonable person would believe it. No reasonable person would believe that the principle acts or would publicly admit to acting in the way these students portrayed him. QED

    The principal no longer works at the High School so there is no conflict of interest in allowing the student to continue there. Transferring him to an ‘alternative school’ is pure vindictiveness, an inappropriate punishment, and probably illegal. The student will win his case.

  14. JJ

    “Why would an employer not take a phony profile as genuine if they can find other good candidates without negative information?”

    Well, I guess that could happen if the employer happened to be a moron…

    Most of my bosses and all the businesses and bureaucracies I have encountered make avoiding risk a very high priority.

    An awful lot of the strange behavior of teachers and administrators that is ridiculed here are examples of risk avoidance. Exercising judgment can get you in trouble. Blindly following rules never does.

  15. This kind of thing – what the kids did – I know it goes on, but I find it troubling.

    Troubling because it adds to an already increasingly uncivil society
    Troubling because it says, “It’s okay to disrespect your teachers and principals” (I wonder: what would have happened if one of the kids had done a fake MySpace page on one of their parents?)
    Troubling because – so often, teachers and principals are seen as the “bad guys” by kids – worthy of ridicule and maybe even worse – when said teachers and principals much of the time are merely trying to do what is right (within the boundaries of the system) for the kids.

    I don’t know about expulsion, but I think the kids should see SOME kind of consequence for what they did.

    The real problem – even if you told them to take down the site, post an apology, whatever – the damage is already done, and also, the site’s surely archived somewhere on the Internet. (That’s what I find really chilling – someone could defame you, you could call them on it, they could remove the site, but it could still be out there stored on the Wayback machine).

    Perhaps having some kind of “internet honor code” (like some schools have honor codes where students agree not to cheat) might be part of a solution?

  16. The difference between Larry Flint’s case and this case is that these are things that Larry Flint said and/or wrote about Falwell. In this case, as I currently understand it, they purported to be the individual in question on several different occasions. (Clearly a form of identity theft probably not punishable by law.) They did not post this information on their own space about him and/or clearly label it as some type of joke or parody. Children, who are about to enter into the “real world” as adults, should learn that actions have consequences, should they not? Perhaps a lawsuit isn’t the best answer. It rarely is. However, did the kids appologize? Did Mom and Dad appologize for the actions of their children? Or did they pull the old “My darling little baby boy wouldn’t do such a thing” and pass off responsibity as so many people seem to do these days.

  17. Well, I guess that could happen if the employer happened to be a moron…

    His prospective employers are nearly all public school districts – so yes, the employer is likely to be a moron.

  18. The technology that scans resumes for buzz words could be used to scan internet profiles. This means that the evaluation process could be automated. The principal should sue and should collect. He is not a public figure like Jerry Falwell. The students attempted to make him a target of ridicule in the school community. They should pay for this.

  19. Well, I’m not a principal, but this seems like a dumb way to handle this. It may be actionable and it’s possible, I suppose, that he might win, but it’s dumb.

    All this does is escalate the problem. Other kids will now just be more careful to anonymize themselves (and it’s certainly possible to do this without leaving any fingerprints) when they put up an even worse page about this idiot.

    If it had been me, I think I would have quietly urged the parents to take action to have the page removed, adding that “my lawyer says I should sue you, but I would rather solve this peacefully”. No parent wants to have to deal with a lawsuit, even if they think they can prevail. If he did this and they weren’t interested in taking the page down, then he’s doing the right thing.

    The kids should be punished, but I doubt they will be. Instead, they’ll just continue to disrespect authority and screw around until they wind up in jail.

    If the world had any justice, the principal would just be allowed to make up a big poster ridiculing the kids and tape it to the front door – then they might learn what it’s like to be ridiculed themselves. But, of course, education has become a form of asymetrical warfare, so that’s out.

  20. would you feel differently if a judge were to rule the content protected free speech?

    INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana (AP) — A judge violated a juvenile’s free-speech rights when he placed her on probation for posting an expletive-laden entry on MySpace criticizing a school principal, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled.

    The three-judge panel on Monday ordered the Putnam Circuit Court to set aside its penalty against the girl, referred to only as A.B. in court records.

    “While we have little regard for A.B.’s use of vulgar epithets, we conclude that her overall message constitutes political speech,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote in the 10-page opinion.

    In February 2006, Greencastle Middle School Principal Shawn Gobert discovered a Web page on MySpace purportedly created by him. A.B., who did not create the page, made derogatory postings on it concerning the school’s policy on body piercings.

    The state filed a delinquency petition in March alleging that A.B.’s acts would have been harassment, identity deception and identity theft if committed by an adult. The juvenile court dropped most of the charges but in June found A.B. to be a delinquent child and placed her on nine months of probation. The judge ruled the comments were obscene.

    A.B. appealed, arguing that her comments were protected political speech under both the state and federal constitutions because they dealt with school policy.

    The Court of Appeals found that the comments were protected and that the juvenile court had unconstitutionally restricted her right of free expression.

    of course, free speech doesn’t mean unaccountability. So while she won’t be punished for writing, she will have her name attached to her actions (or at least the name AB).

  21. Chris,

    The Principal referenced in Joanne’s post is suing in a Pennsylvania Court, not an Indiana Court.

    The judge overturned a disciplinary action for criticizing a school policy, not defaming a prinicpal. I agree with the judge in the case you cite.

  22. different cases, judges and states to be sure. but same free speech. the case details did not cover what happened to those who created the page which would be an even closer parallel.

  23. Scott Moore says:

    I’d have to side with the principal on this one. If the kids criticized him or his policies on the web, then I’d side with the students. But they created a false profile which would lead people to believe it was him. That’s defamation.

    In today’s world (especially in the US) where sexual harassment and such are taken so seriously, it’s not funny to make allegations like that. Free speach doesn’t mean unaccountability.