The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday overruled Putnam County Judge Matthew Headley, who placed a middle school student on probation in 2006.
The student was punished for posting an expletive-laden entry on MySpace criticizing Greencastle Middle School Principal Shawn Gobert over school policy on body piercings.
The state Court of Appeals last year had ordered the Putnam Circuit Court to set aside its penalty against the girl, referred to in court documents as A.B., because it said the court had violated the girl's free-speech rights.
The Supreme Court, however, disagreed with that rationale and instead overruled the court because it found it had failed to prove that the girl's post constituted harassment under Indiana law.
In February 2006, Gobert discovered a Web page on MySpace purportedly created by him. A.B., who did not create the page, made derogatory postings on it including one that noted Gobert could no longer control her and that she would wear her piercings as she wished.
The state filed a delinquency petition the following month, 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 found A.B. to be a delinquent child and placed her on nine months of probation. Judge Headley ruled the comments were obscene.
The court noted that a key post appeared in a private section of a MySpace site that was not intended to be viewed by the public, but only by friends who had been invited by the user. Gobert was able to view it only after gaining access from another student who had created the site.
A.B. therefore had no reason to expect that Gobert would see her post, the high court said in its eight-page ruling.
Another post that led to the penalty appeared in a more public area of the site, but the Supreme Court said the content indicated that it was intended as legitimate communication, which meant it could not be construed as harassment under state law.
In the May 13 decision, the Indiana State Court ruled for the student, but on different grounds. They said the student's message on the fake page was not truly directed at Gobert because he was not on authorized by the MySpace site to view it.
The court also said that the vulgar MySpace group created by A.B. was accessible to the general public and there was a reasonable expectation that it would come to the principal's attention. But, under Indiana's harassment statute, a person breaks the law only by communicating a message with "the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person but with no intent of legitimate communication."
"The consent of the posting presents strong evidence that A.B. intended her 'group' page as legitimate communication of her anger and criticism of the disciplinary action of Gobert and the Greencastle Middle School against her friend, the creator of the private profile," the ruling said.
The court also said, "We also observe that it is even more plausible that A.B., then 14 years old, merely intended to amuse and gain approval or notoriety from her friends, and/or to generally vent anger for her personal grievances."