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Justices: MySpace use not harassment

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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A teenager's use of the social networking site MySpace.com didn't rise to the level of harassment because her expletive-laden postings criticizing her principal about school policy weren't available to everyone online, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled.

In a unanimous ruling late Tuesday afternoon, the state's five justices agreed to reverse a lower court's decision in A.B. v. State of Indiana, No. 67S01-0709-JV-373.

While the case presented justices with a chance to explore free speech rights as they pertain to online activity in the 21st century - largely whether online postings at a social networking site are considered protected speech - the court sidestepped that underlying issue by the fact that the MySpace.com site used in this case wasn't completely open to public viewing.

The case stems from a February 2006 incident involving Greencastle Middle School and its principal, Shawn Gobert. He discovered a MySpace page online supposedly created by him, but since it was set to "private" and only designated "friends" could see or post comments, Gobert obtained another student's information and was able to log on to read the posts.

A 14-year-old referred to in court documents as A.B. hadn't created the page, but she'd posted derogatory comments online concerning the school's policy on body piercing. Another post read, "die ... Gobert ... die." She also created a separate publicly accessible page on MySpace with a profane name.

The state filed a delinquency petition and alleged the juvenile's acts would have amounted to harassment, identity deception, and identity theft, if committed by an adult. Most charges were dropped, but the juvenile court determined A.B. was a delinquent child and placed her on nine months of probation, ruling that the comments alone were obscene.

In April 2007, the Indiana Court of Appeals ordered the lower court to set aside its penalty against A.B. because it said Putnam Circuit Judge Matthew Headley's decision had violated the girl's free-speech rights. The Supreme Court disagreed with that rationale and instead overruled the trial court because it found the state had failed to prove that the girl's post constituted harassment.

Analyzing the difference between "public" and "private" pages on MySpace, the court determined that the postings on this "private" page were not intended to be viewed by Gobert. Another posting on a public "group" page, though, indicates A.B.'s "legitimate communication of her anger and criticism of the disciplinary action of Mr. Gobert and the Greencastle Middle School against her friend, the creator of the private profile," the opinion stated. The court determined that it also made the state unable to prove its case that her posting included an "intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person but with no intent of legitimate communication," as required by statute.

"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," Justice Brent Dickson wrote. "We find no evidence or reasonable inferences sufficient to prove A.B., in making the MySpace statements with which she was charged, did so with the requisite statutory intent."

An interesting element of the ruling also included a comment at the beginning that pointed out how little evidence was presented about the operation and use of MySpace.com. The court noted that a judicial canon prohibits judges from independently investigating facts of a case and requires them to only look at the evidence presented.

"Notwithstanding this directive, in order to facilitate understanding of the facts and application of relevant legal principles, this opinion includes information regarding the operation and use of MySpace from identified sources outside the trial record of this case," Justice Dickson wrote.

The case then cites information from the site itself, last visited on March 31.
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  1. The $320,000 is the amount the school spent in litigating two lawsuits: One to release the report involving John Trimble (as noted in the story above) and one defending the discrimination lawsuit. The story above does not mention the amount spent to defend the discrimination suit, that's why the numbers don't match. Thanks for reading.

  2. $160k? Yesterday the figure was $320k. Which is it Indiana Lawyer. And even more interesting, which well connected law firm got the (I am guessing) $320k, six time was the fired chancellor received. LOL. (From yesterday's story, which I guess we were expected to forget overnight ... "According to records obtained by the Journal & Courier, Purdue spent $161,812, beginning in July 2012, in a state open records lawsuit and $168,312, beginning in April 2013, for defense in a federal lawsuit. Much of those fees were spent battling court orders to release an independent investigation by attorney John Trimble that found Purdue could have handled the forced retirement better")

  3. The numbers are harsh; 66 - 24 in the House, 40 - 10 in the Senate. And it is an idea pushed by the Democrats. Dead end? Ummm not necessarily. Just need to go big rather than go home. Nuclear option. Give it to the federal courts, the federal courts will ram this down our throats. Like that other invented right of the modern age, feticide. Rights too precious to be held up by 2000 years of civilization hang in the balance. Onward!

  4. I'm currently seeing someone who has a charge of child pornography possession, he didn't know he had it because it was attached to a music video file he downloaded when he was 19/20 yrs old and fought it for years until he couldn't handle it and plead guilty of possession. He's been convicted in Illinois and now lives in Indiana. Wouldn't it be better to give them a chance to prove to the community and their families that they pose no threat? He's so young and now because he was being a kid and downloaded music at a younger age, he has to pay for it the rest of his life? It's unfair, he can't live a normal life, and has to live in fear of what people can say and do to him because of something that happened 10 years ago? No one deserves that, and no one deserves to be labeled for one mistake, he got labeled even though there was no intent to obtain and use the said content. It makes me so sad to see someone I love go through this and it makes me holds me back a lot because I don't know how people around me will accept him...second chances should be given to those under the age of 21 at least so they can be given a chance to live a normal life as a productive member of society.

  5. It's just an ill considered remark. The Sup Ct is inherently political, as it is a core part of government, and Marbury V Madison guaranteed that it would become ever more so Supremely thus. So her remark is meaningless and she just should have not made it.... what she could have said is that Congress is a bunch of lazys and cowards who wont do their jobs so the hard work of making laws clear, oftentimes stops with the Sups sorting things out that could have been resolved by more competent legislation. That would have been a more worthwhile remark and maybe would have had some relevance to what voters do, since voters cant affect who gets appointed to the supremely un-democratic art III courts.

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