Principal Sues Former Students Over Comments On Fake MySpace Page

But different case, where girl posted derogatory comments on page not created by her, may fall under free-speech protection.

A Hermitage, Pennsylvania, middle-school principal has taken legal action against four of his former students, claiming that they established phony MySpace accounts in his name and posted comments that defamed his character and damaged his reputation and earning potential.

According to The Associated Press, the lawsuits were filed by attorneys for Eric Trosch, former co-principal of Hickory High School and current principal at Hermitage Middle School, and will seek unspecified punitive damages against the students, who created the false accounts more than two years ago. The profiles have since been removed from the popular social-networking site.

One of the students named in the suit, Justin Layshock, 19, allegedly created an account in Trosch's name, in which he's described as "a big steroid freak" and "too drunk to remember" his birthday. The profile also suggested that Trosch smoked marijuana and kept a keg of beer behind his desk.

A different profile, created by student Thomas Cooper, also claimed Trosch was a fan of pornography, while a third, the work of brothers Brendan and Christopher Gebhart, depicted more graphic activities.

The fake profiles "went far and beyond what you would see on a bathroom wall in a school," Trosch's lawyer, John E. Quinn, told the AP. He added that the person behind a fourth MySpace profile, which he called "the most graphic and lurid of them all," has not yet been identified, but would be a party to the action if and when the person is.

Layshock, who was suspended and sent to an alternative program once Trosch learned of the profile, has teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union, and together they filed suit arguing that the MySpace posts are protected free speech under the First Amendment. A judge refused to order the school to accept him back as a student, in a decision handed down last year.

A recent decision — unrelated to the Trosch case — could have an impact on the outcome of the principal's lawsuit. The AP reports that on Monday, a three-judge panel ordered Indiana's Putnam Circuit Court to shelve its penalty against a teenage girl who'd posted an obscenity-riddled diatribe on a fake MySpace page purported to be created by her school's principal.

The panel determined that a judge violated the girl's First Amendment rights when he placed her on probation for the post. "While we have little regard for [the girl's] use of vulgar epithets, we conclude that her overall message constitutes political speech," reads the panel's opinion.

In February of last year, Greencastle Middle School principal Shawn Gobert discovered the offending MySpace page, which was purportedly created by him. The girl, who is named in court documents as "A.B.," did not create the page, but posted her comments concerning the school's policy on body piercings.

In response, the state filed a delinquency petition alleging the comments constituted harassment, identity deception, and identity theft. While most of the charges were dropped by juvenile court not long after, "A.B." was placed on nine months' probation, as the judge had characterized her comments as obscene. The girl appealed the decision, claiming the post was protected political speech under both the state and federal constitutions, as they spoke to the issue of school policy.