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.