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School can discipline ‘Charm Queen’ for hateful website

Can a public school system suspend a student for posting ugly accusations about another student on a Myspace page? Absolutely, said the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an opinion decided Tuesday.

Kara Kowalski, the “Queen of Charm” at West Virginia’s Musselman High School, showed little charm in her 2005 Internet discussion group about a fellow student. The Myspace page gleefully ridiculed the other student for allegedly having herpes. Kowalski invited other students to join the group, and about two dozen did so, posting pictures and mocking comments.

When the target and her parents complained, the school system suspended Kowalski for five days and imposed a “social suspension” that precluded Kowalski from crowning the next “Queen of Charm.”

Kowalski argued she could not be punished for “private out-of-school speech” under the First Amendment, but she found no sympathy at the district court or at the 4th Circuit.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to take up the issue of student speech targeting classmates for verbal abuse, the three-judge appeals court panel unanimously determined public schools have a compelling interest in regulating speech that disrupts school activities. Moreover, the panel found bullying is a “major concern” for schools nationwide.

Kowalski’s webpage was “particularly mean-spirited and hateful” and her conduct was “indisputably harassing and bullying,” the court found.

“[T]he Constitution is not written to hinder school administrators’ good faith efforts to address the problem,” wrote Judge Paul V. Niemeyer for the panel, affirming summary judgment for the school district.

-By Peter Vieth

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