Principal Loses Lawsuit Against Students and Parents Over Fake MySpace Page–Draker v. Schreiber
By Eric Goldman
John O. and I have previously blogged about teenagers creating fake web pages targeting someone at their school. See, e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4. I must confess to having an odd fascination with these cases because if I were 13 years old in 2005 or 2006, I probably would have done something similar and mistakenly thought it was both knee-slappingly funny and satisfyingly vindictive.
But it’s no laughing matter when these pages lead to lawsuits, and that seems to be happening all too frequently. The more typical fact pattern is that the student sues the school for unwarranted discipline meted out in response to a fake MySpace page. In contrast, today’s lawsuit is unusual because the vice-principal Draker, in addition to disciplining the students and turning them over to the cops, took her case to court to demand accountability and cash from the students and their parents.
It doesn’t look like she is going to get either. The district court dismissed her claims for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and in the latest ruling, the appellate court upholds the dismissal. The trial court dismissed the defamation claims apparently on the basis that the MySpace page’s over-the-top statements were not objectively verifiable facts, and Draker did not appeal that ruling. The intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was dismissed because under TX law the cause of action is a gap-filler, and there was no gap given that the defamation doctrine putatively governs these facts. To me, this seems a little odd–the court simultaneously says that defamation doesn’t apply, but there’s no gap left to be filled–but the court explicitly acknowledged this seeming inconsistency and was unanimous about it. Case dismissed.
As a parting shot, however, one of the judges issued a stinging concurrence, blasting the students for “outrageous” conduct and admonishing that the “school children of this state should know that appropriating the identity of a teacher or school administrator to create a fraudulent internet social profile is unacceptable, and that engaging in such conduct will have consequences.” I’m sympathetic to her concerns, and I’d love to get in the face of some of these teens and shout “WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?” At the same time, I think the seemingly overwhelming prevalence of teen-authored fake anti-authority MySpace pages raises some complex questions about the allocation of responsibility among teenagers, their parents, MySpace, the targets of the criticism, and readers of Internet content. Except in the most extreme cases, I find it hard to believe that the best resolution involves principals, teachers or other school administrators dragging their students (and their parents) down to the courthouse.