Student’s First Amendment rights violated in conviction over MySpace postings

State v. A.B., No. 67A01-0609-JV-372 (Ind. App. April 9, 2007) [Download the opinion.]

A middle school girl in Greencastle, Indiana created a bogus MySpace profile impersonating her school’s principal. She invited one of her classmates, A.B., to be a “friend,” and A.B. posted an obscenity-laced (yet surprisingly grammatically accurate) comment that was critical of the school’s policy against certain types of body piercings. A.B. also created a group on MySpace that was likewise critical of the principal, and posted content there.

The State filed a delinquency petition against A.B., alleging several violations of the state’s harassment statute, Ind. Code § 35-45-2-2(a)(4). The trial court issued an order adjudicating A.B. to be a delinquent child, and gave her nine months of probation.

A.B. sought review, arguing, among other things, that the web content she created was political speech protected by the First Amendment. On appeal, the court agreed and reversed the adjudication of delinquency.

The court applied a two-part test to review the constitutionality of the application of the harassment statute. It determined (1) whether state action had restricted A.B.’s expressive activity, and (2) whether the restriction constituted an abuse of the right to speak. The court answered both of these questions in the affirmative.

In determining that the restriction was an abuse of A.B.’s right to speak, the court did “not engage in speculation as to what the speaker might have meant,” but employed an objective standard to determine that the speech was to be understood as political speech.

This form of speech is to be protected, absent some “particularized harm analogous to tortious injury or readily identifiable private interests.” The court found that the state presented no evidence of this sort of particularized harm, thus the constitutional right to speak had been contravened.