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Step Away From the Sharpie

MySpace and blogs are the new bathroom walls for troubled teens - and adults who haven't grown up

5:35 PM -- Trashing a teacher or administrator with a permanent marker on the bathroom wall used to be the ultimate act of rebellion for an angry teenager. But a Sharpie just doesn't cut it anymore: Now you have to up a fake MySpace site in your most hated teacher or principal's name, and spew away with the phony comments and photos.

That's what students in Penn. and Ind. allegedly did recently -- and no doubt it's going on around the rest of the country, too, unbeknownst to some clueless administrators. MTV.com reported today that a former middle school principal in Hermitage, Pa., is taking legal action against four former students, charging that they set up fake MySpace accounts two years ago in his name, posting comments "that defamed his character and damaged his reputation and earning potential," according to the article. (The fake MySpace accounts are no longer on the site.)

One of the students named in the suit apparently depicted Eric Trosch, former co-principal of Hermitage Middle School, as "a big steroid freak" and "too drunk to remember" his birthday, among other things. Other profiles described Trosch as a porno fan -- and that was one of the more tame illustrations of him in the phony MySpace profiles.

One of the accused students, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, is arguing that MySpace posts are protected under the First Amendment. Whether that holds water may hinge on another legal action handed down in Ind. today, where the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned a middle-school girl's probation sentence for posting an expletive-laced commentary on the school's body-piercing policy on a phony MySpace profile that had been set up by someone else in her principal's name.

"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.

So where does free speech stop and harassment begin online? That's way too big a question to answer here. The blogosphere is debating that topic right now in the wake of disturbing and graphic threats to a well-known IT blogger, with Tim O'Reilly now proposing a blogger's code of ethics to help keep the trolls who ruin it for everyone at bay.

All I know for sure is that you can't stop a Sharpie-wielding middle-schooler -- nor an adult who hasn't evolved beyond high school -- from spewing their venom and obscenities on the Net. It's just too big a bathroom wall to keep clean.

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

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