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Judge hears case of teen punished for Web parody

1-31-2006 Pennsylvania:
Skinny and unsure of himself, 17-year-old Justin Layshock of Hermitage took the stand yesterday to try to convince a federal judge to let him return to his classes at Hickory High School in Mercer County.

Justin, a senior in the gifted program at the school, was suspended for 10 days earlier this month and then placed in the school's Alternative Education Program for creating an online profile of his school principal, Eric Trosch, on the popular Web site on Dec. 10.

In the parody, Justin posted a picture of Mr. Trosch he took from the school's Web site and made fun of his principal's size. He also used obscenities.

The Hermitage School District exacted its punishment on Justin, and he is now challenging it through a federal lawsuit filed on his behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Justin claims that the profile he created is a form of protected free speech -- specifically because he did it on his grandmother's computer and not while at school.

Yesterday, his ACLU attorney, Witold Walczak, asked U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry for a temporary restraining order that would allow Justin to return to his classes while the lawsuit is litigated.

To win the order, though, Justin must prove he is being "irreparably harmed" by the current punishment.

John R. Gotaskie Jr., who represents the school district, says that's not the case, and that Justin's instruction in the three-hour-a-day alternative program is more than what is required by state law.

In addition, he said the profile is not protected free speech because of the connection between the home activity and what occurred at school, including Justin trying to access the site from there.

The judge is expected to make his decision today.

At times on the stand, Justin sounded like an awkward teenager, interspersing the word "like" throughout his answers, and saying "yeah," and "um" to questions posed to him by lawyers on both sides.

But often during his 90-minute testimony, his intelligence and maturity came through. "I certainly didn't think it would have the kind of effects it's had," he said.

After he was called in to speak to school administrators about the profile, Justin went to Mr. Trosch to apologize.

He told Mr. Trosch he was sorry and asked him to pass the apology on to his daughter, who also goes to the school.

But that wasn't the end of the issue. Just as winter break was ending, Justin and his mother were called to the school again to learn what his punishment would be.

Around that same time, he also found out that the Hermitage police were investigating all four online profiles.

Administrators at Hickory contend that the profiles of Mr. Trosch caused so much disruption at school -- students were logging on to the Web site thousands of times -- that all student computer use in the building had to be stopped from Dec. 16 to Dec. 21.

Justin claims that school officials have told him he'll have to finish his senior year in the Alternative Education Program.

But the administrators now claim that's not the case. Mr. Gotaskie told Judge McVerry that it's possible Justin could return to his regular classes with "proper conduct and behavioral modification." ..more.. by Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette See Also: Earlier story


Scenes From the MySpace Backlash
2-27-2006 Wired News Report:

Last December, a mischievous student used a home computer to create an account on the social networking site MySpace bearing the name and likeness of his school principal, Eric Trosch.

The profile the Hermitage, Pennsylvania, Hickory High School student bestowed on his principal was not kind. For "birthday" he listed "too drunk to remember." And for vital stats like eye and hair color he wrote, simply, "big" -- a poke at the educator's girth that he managed to weave into most of the 60-odd survey questions in Trosch's fictional profile: Do you smoke? "Big cigs." Do you swear? "Big words." Thoughts first waking up? "Too … damn … big."

The teen told some friends at school about the gag. Big mistake.

As a judge would later put it, "word of the parody … soon reached most, if not all, of the student body of Hickory High School," and the fake MySpace profile, along with several less nuanced commentaries crafted by other students, became a monster hit at the school. The administration banned student PC use for six days, canceling some classes, while they traced the profile to 17-year-old senior Justin Layshock, who promptly confessed and apologized.

"We grounded him and didn't allow him on the computer for two weeks," says Layshock's mother, Cherie Layshock. But the school had stronger medicine in mind. Layshock was suspended for 10 days, then transferred into an alternative education program for students incapable of functioning in a regular classroom.

A gifted learner who had been enrolled in advanced-placement classes and tutored other kids in French, Layshock spent the next month in a scaled-down three-hour-a-day program where a typical assignment saw students building a tower out of paper clips as a lesson in teamwork. The punishment led to an ACLU lawsuit that is ongoing, and garnered the school district a slew of critical stories in the local papers.

And that's how the thin-skinned educators of Hermitage joined the great MySpace crackdown of '06.

Similar scenes are playing out around the country, as school teachers and administrators hold community conferences or send home bulletins alerting parents to the dangers of allowing their kids to use MySpace unsupervised.

In recent weeks newspapers from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Rutland Herald have pressed out stories -- often on the front page -- with headlines like "Online Danger Zone" and "The Trouble With MySpace." An NBC Dateline show in January colored MySpace "a cyber secret teenagers keep from tech-challenged parents."

Meanwhile, schools are racing to block the site at the campus firewall. "Some argue that it's educationally valid, others say they're seeing kids beat up over it," says David Trask, a junior high teacher and technology director at Vassalboro Community School in Maine. "In my view, it doesn't have much (educational) value." ..more..


Principal Sues Student for Cyber Defamation: Teen Posted MySpace Profile Stating Man's Affinity for Porn, Booze, Underage Students
4-7-2007 Pennsylvania:

A school principal in Pennsylvania is suing four former high school students for defamation of character after he says they posted demeaning comments about him online.

Although school teachers and principals are used to being the target of student's jokes, principal Eric Trosch says that a MySpace profile that was posted about him went way beyond just a joke.

On his personal MySpace posting, student Justin Layshock describes himself as a 19-year-old college student who lives for humor.

But Trosch, his former principal, now at Hermitage Middle School, wasn't laughing two years ago when Layshock posted the mock profile of him online.

In documents obtained by, the profile describes Trosch as "a big steroid freak" and as "too drunk to remember" his birthday. Under movies, the profile listed that Trosch liked "chick flicks and porno movies." The posting also said that Trosch kept beer at school and had sex with students.

The principal is now suing for defamation of his character.

"I think this principal has a pretty strong case," said Lisa Bloom, an ABC News legal contributor and a Court TV News anchor. "This is the equivalent of putting a giant billboard over the school and saying the principal is a child molester, the principal is a drunk, the principal is a drug addict. … That's clearly defamation under the law if it's not true."

Pittsburgh lawyer Todd Hollis said he, too, was the victim of online lies — in his case, posted anonymously.

Last year, his name appeared on a Web site called along with some ugly accusations that he was promiscuous, had a sexually transmitted disease and worse.

"It took my breath away," Hollis said. "I was embarrassed. I felt like a joke."

Hollis is now suing the Web site's owner and one of the women he believes posted the comments about him online.

But for Hollis and the Pennsylvania principal, getting compensation could be an uphill battle.

"The students," Bloom said, "may say, 'Obviously this is a joke. It's satire and it's protected, and it's not defamation. It's not a false statement of fact.'"

Trosch said the postings humiliated him and hurt his earning potential. He's seeking unspecified punitive damages against the students. Layshock and the ACLU have filed a suit arguing that the Web postings are protected by the First Amendment. ..more.. by ABC News


Principal sues 4 ex-students over profiles on Myspace

The Hermitage Middle School principal has sued four former students over “demeaning” and “demoralizing” profiles they created about him.

Eric W. Trosch, who was co-principal of Hickory High School at the time, said in the defamation lawsuit filed in Mercer County Common Pleas Court that the three profiles, created in December 2005, damaged his reputation — possibly permanently — humiliated him and impaired his earning capacity.

Trosch filed the lawsuit against Justin Layshock, Thomas Cooper and brothers Brendan and Christopher Gebhart.

Layshock publicly acknowledged creating a Myspace profile of Trosch in a federal lawsuit he and his parents, Donald and Cheryl Layshock, filed against Trosch, Hermitage School District, co-principal Chris Gill and Superintendent Karen A. Ionta.

The Layshocks, who were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, said Justin’s profile was protected by the First Amendment, rendering the school’s punishment of Justin illegal. That punishment included a suspension and reassignment to an alternative education program.

The names of Cooper and the Gebharts had not surfaced publicly before. Trosch’s attorney, John E. Quinn of Portnoy & Quinn, Pittsburgh, said the names were uncovered by Hermitage police.

Mercer County District Attorney James P. Epstein would not confirm whether Cooper and the Gebharts were identified as having created Myspace profiles in a criminal investigation conducted by Hermitage police. City Police Chief Patrick B. McElhinny, who has handled all releases of information concerning the Myspace investigation, could not be reached for comment.

Quinn said there was a fourth Myspace profile, which he called “the most graphic and lurid of them all,” but its creator has not been discovered.

Michael L. Magulick of the Pittsburgh law firm Wayman, Irvin and McAuley, who is representing Cooper, said he could not comment on the suit because he had not met with Cooper. He said a meeting is expected soon.

“It’s much too early to really comment on this,” Magulick said. “This is going to require an in-depth investigation and analysis.”

Donald Layshock said he could not comment on Trosch’s lawsuit because of the pending federal lawsuit.

Gina M. Zumpella of the Pittsburgh law firm of Walsh, Collis and Blackmer, which is representing the Gebharts, also declined to comment.

Trosch declined to comment.

While school principals are the subject of student graffiti, unflattering nicknames and other abuse at some point in their careers, Trosch felt the Myspace profiles “went far and beyond what you would see on a bathroom wall in a school,” Quinn said.

In his deposition for the Layshock lawsuit, Trosch said he first heard about one of the profiles on Dec. 11, 2005, when his daughter, Kelsey, a Hickory ninth-grader at the time, received an e-mail from a friend that said a profile of Trosch was on Myspace.

Kelsey was crying when she called her dad into the kitchen to tell him, Trosch said.

“She was pretty upset,” he said, adding that she had seen the profile. “She was crying ’cause the contents of the profile are disturbing.”

Trosch told Gill about the site the next day, a Monday. Trosch said he was upset and concerned about it and close to tears.

District technology coordinator Frank Gingras was able to get the site taken down, Trosch said, adding that he called police on Dec. 13, 2005.

Kelsey also told her dad of a second profile, on Dec. 15, 2005.

“Kids were coming up to her” in school, Trosch said.

Trosch learned of a third Web site, although parts of his deposition possibly concerning that discovery have not been made public.

Referring to Layshock’s profile, Trosch said, “It was degrading, it’s demeaning, it’s demoralizing, it’s shocking.”

He used the same terms to describe another profile.

“I try to picture it driving down the interstate and seeing a billboard up there of you, and looking and seeing any type of information that’s on there,” he said. “It would be one of shock.”

Trosch called a meeting before school Dec. 16, 2005, to inform teachers of the profiles and said he was embarrassed to have to make the announcement. He had to step out of the room and asked Gill to continue, he said.

All of the Web sites were disabled, but officials have said many students called up the profiles while at school. District officials spent a lot of time trying to prevent student access and investigating the sites, and ended up blocking all student access to computers, which caused the cancellation of computer-reliant classes for several days.

Myspace is a social network Web site service that has become wildly popular with young people, and is used as a marketing tool for performers and politicians.

A person can set up a profile of himself or herself on Myspace, and “friends” can attach links to the profile.

In the suit, Trosch alleges the students created profiles of him without his consent, and used a photograph of him taken from the district’s Web site.

The suit said Cooper’s profile of Trosch stated that Trosch’s favorite movie was pornographic and that he tried to intimidate his students. Layshock’s site said Trosch kept a keg of beer behind his desk and smoked marijuana, and the Gebharts’ site said Trosch liked to have sex with students and brutalize women, the suit said.

Hickory students posted pictures of themselves as friends on the sites, the suit said.

In testimony in the federal suit, Layshock said he was aware of the other sites before he created his on his grandmother’s computer

“I really had no specific reason to do it, which made me feel worse for having done it, other than I was bored and I did it,” he testified.

Layshock said he was trying to be funny.

“I didn’t think how it would affect Mr. Trosch and his family,” he said.

Trosch is seeking unspecified punitive damages.

In a related matter, Cincinnati Insurance Co., Fairfield, Ohio, has filed a federal suit against Trosch and the Gebharts over a request by the Gebharts that the insurance company provide a defense to them under a homeowners insurance policy obtained by their parents, Dr. James R. and Cynthia A. Gebhart.

Cincinnati said the policy requires it to defend the Gebharts against suits seeking damages for personal injury, which includes allegations of defamation of character.

However, the company said it does not have to cover personal injury claims if the injury is caused with the knowledge that the act would violate another’s rights, and if the injury was caused by written publication of material when the insured knows the information is false.

Cincinnati Insurance is asking the court to rule that it does not have to provide coverage for or defend against Trosch’s suit. In the interim, it has retained Walsh, Collis and Blackmer to defend the Gebharts, Quinn said.

Quinn said he expected there would be challenges such as those filed by Cincinnati Insurance. Most homeowners insurance policies have some sort of coverage for defamation lawsuits. He said Magulick was retained through such a policy.

The insurance companies hold the purse strings for a possible payout if Trosch is successful at trial or agrees to settle, Quinn said.

“From a practical standpoint, you’re not going to get much out of a bunch of 18-year-olds,” Quinn said.

He also said that the question of whether insurance policies would cover the creation of a Web profile is new in legal circles.

“This is not like putting something in the newspaper,” he said.

The criminal investigation remains open, but Epstein would not comment further.

In the Layshocks’ suit, each side has asked a judge to decide the case based on the information presented so far. Each side is within the allotted time period to respond to each others’ request, and U.S. District Court Judge Terrence C. McVerry, Pittsburgh, will make a decision later. ..more.. by Joe Pinchot


School Principal Sues Students Over Fake MySpace Pages
4-7-2007 Pennsylvania:

Hermitage, PA (AHN) - A school principal has filed suit against four former students claiming they posted fake profiles in his name. The principal accuses the students of posting falsehoods that he keeps beer at school, has sex with students and likes smoking drugs.

Eric W. Trosch claims the fake pages damaged his reputation, caused him humiliation and hurt his earning potential. Trosch was co-principal of Hickory High School when the profiles went up. He's now the principal at a middle school close by.

He's seeking punitive damages.

One of the students named in the lawsuit sued the school district to be able to return to regular school after he was expelled and sent to an alternative program when the page he allegedly created was discovered. ..more.. by Nicole King - All Headline News Staff Writer

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