Saturday’s article from Pennsylvania “Hermitage principal sues over MySpace parody” highlights issues of ongoing importance relating to user-created content, defamation, free speech, and appropriate/ethical uses of digital technologies. According to the article:

A school principal sued four former students who he contends posted parody profiles saying he smoked pot, kept beer at school and liked having sex with students. In the lawsuit, Eric W. Trosch alleged that the three profiles created in December 2005 on the social networking Web site damaged his reputation, humiliated him and hurt his earning capacity. The profiles “went far and beyond what you would see on a bathroom wall in a school,” said Trosch’s attorney, John E. Quinn.

There is an extensive an interesting thread of discussion (48 comments long as of this writing) about this on MySpace. Among the comments is a question of whether or not a school principal qualifies as a “public figure” for whom there is less legal, libel protection due to that status. That protection permits, for example, “Saturday Night Live” skits about prominent political figures and protects authors, producers, and actors from being sued for creating those parodies.

It sounds like these MySpace profiles were malicious rather than attempts at comical parody, and there certainly should be consequences for the students involved. Those consequences may not be strictly legal, however, since the line between free speech parodies and libel can be a thin one. It will be interesting to follow the case, as I suspect the federal court will rule against the plaintiff (the principal.) It sounds like the principal is justifiably upset that students created a hurtful MySpace page about him, but legal remedies may not be possible because of his “public official” status.

Here are several questions school leaders around the world should be asking themselves in response to this situation:

  1. Do we have clear policies about cyberbullying and defamation which have been communicated to students as well as parents, and approved by our district’s legal counsel?
  2. Do we have site-based committees of parents, teachers, administrators and law enforcement personnel in place to deal with cyberbullying situations similar to this one which will come up at some point?
  3. Are we providing safe, walled-garden “sandboxes” at school to help students learn safe and appropriate digital social networking skills? (Most schools are not.)
  4. Are we engaging in regular digital dialog with students, parents, and others in our communities to discuss issues like these, and possible solutions?
  5. Are we helping students learn to constructively leverage the power of the read/write web at home and at school, or are we just blocking as many websites as possible at school and hoping these issues surrounding user-created content will bypass our school and community?

Don’t wait until a lawsuit like this hits the headlines in your local paper. Take action now to get more conversations about safe digital social networking and Internet safety going in your community today.

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3 Responses to MySpace defamation suit highlights important issues

  1. York says:

    I agree that every community should have conversations with parents and students about internet safety. It is a huge concern, especially with social networking sites. Not only is cyberbullying a problem, but internet predators conversing with children online is another. I think education is the first step in helping to stop this and keep kids safer online. There is a resource I really like called NetSmartz411. It is a great resource for parents to learn about online safety and ask their questions.

  2. Scott McLeod says:

    Hi Wesley, you prompted me to do some legal digging:

    Re: your questions 1 & 2 above, schools need to tread carefully…

  3. […] If you read my post from Sunday, “MySpace defamation suit highlights important issues,” you’re likely seeing the pattern here. In this Indiana case, apparently because the student’s posting to MySpace involved school policies and were not purely personal attacks led to this appeals decision. […]

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