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Landmark Ruling in Favor of on-line Student Speech
June 15, 2011 9:32 AM   Subscribe

Two simultaneous landmark court rulings in favor of student speech limit the extent to which a school can censor a student's OFF CAMPUS on-line speech. These rulings centered on two cases where students parodied school principals in a disrespectful manner on MySpace.
posted by Seymour Zamboni (35 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Disclaimer: Teacher here.) The reasonable thing for the schools in question to do would have been to watch for disruptions in class and punish those, as opposed to jumping on them for what they say/post. Nobody in education should be shocked when a student speaks or writes insultingly of them.

I first saw this headline on another site (Fark, I think? HuffPo?) claiming that it was somehow restrictive on free speech, but I can't see how...?
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:43 AM on June 15, 2011


"Myspace? MYSPACE?"
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:50 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


I guess if you don't want teenagers disseminating false information about your sexual habits and genitalia, don't become a high-school/middle-school principal. I think that was already true, though.
posted by Huck500 at 9:51 AM on June 15, 2011


I guess if you don't want teenagers disseminating false information about your sexual habits and genitalia, don't become a high-school/middle-school principal.

If the students are able to spread true information about your sexual habits and genitalia, this sentence is doubly accurate.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:53 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The principal wound up in court because a student said he had a small penis online? Sir, please reevaluate your levels of self-esteem and remeasure your penis.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:58 AM on June 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


I guess if you don't want teenagers disseminating false information about your sexual habits and genitalia, don't become a high-school/middle-school principal.

If the students are able to spread true information about your sexual habits and genitalia, this sentence is doubly accurate.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:53 AM on June 15 [+] [!]


I don't think your sentence makes any sense, Genji.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 10:00 AM on June 15, 2011


But, I, as a private citizen, am free to do so, correct?
posted by boo_radley at 10:05 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Faculty have an obligation to establish civic virtues and order. Often, I would see them taking petty revenge for slights against their as-yet-undeserved authority.

How much can you learn about civic virtues from someone who doesn't respect free speech? Or the freedom of assembly? Or the seperation of church and state?
posted by Slackermagee at 10:06 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


...students parodied school principals in a disrespectful manner on MySpace.

Break out the hickory switch!
posted by DU at 10:08 AM on June 15, 2011


Wait, the rulings "limit the extent to which a school can censor a student's OFF CAMPUS on-line speech"? They limit it to 0, right?
posted by DU at 10:13 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Three years ago a student created a fake facebook profile and an unflattering group centered around me. I was his science teacher the year before. After some prodding, I was able to convince the principal that we should meet with the students who had posted to this group and their parents. I knew that we couldn't really punish them, but hoped to reinforce for the students the idea that people in the public can see what you post on-line and it can come back to haunt you later. Almost all the students were very nice and apologized and said that if they knew I'd see it they never would have posted. They just thought of it as a student, semi-private joke. The creator of the group, however, was combative from the get-go. Gave me all this stuff about free-speech and parody and whatnot. He probably had a point. Then it got strangely funny. He got all pissed off that I had told the other teachers in the school what he had done and told me that he didn't appreciate me ruining his reputation as student government president. I was incredulous. I said, "So, your ability to work and function here at school has been compromised because of what people are saying about you?" He said, "yeah, ... blah, blah, blah." He never saw the irony, but his dad did. Dad just said "Shut up." His dad apologized and they got up and left.
posted by sciencejock at 10:20 AM on June 15, 2011 [28 favorites]


They limit it to 0, right?

Only if the students are fully incorporated.
posted by three blind mice at 10:34 AM on June 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


Wait, the rulings "limit the extent to which a school can censor a student's OFF CAMPUS on-line speech"? They limit it to 0, right?

Basically, yes. The majority did not rule on whether "online speech may be restricted if it 'materially and substantially disrupt[s] the work and discipline of the school'," and some of the judges would hold that online speech may be restricted under those circumstances.

Complete insanity, if you ask me. It's easy to throw the issue into sharp relief if you replace "school" with "government." On school grounds or at school functions, sure, a certain baseline of decent behavior may be mandated, just as they can throw you out of the DMV for being abusive toward the clerk. Outside that, though, I think children should have the same free speech rights towards the school as adults do toward the government.
posted by jedicus at 10:38 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Consider that the "free speech off-campus" may often relate to bullying, and consider the significant number of teen suicides.

I'm not saying we should limit free speech. I am saying, however, that this is entirely stuff that teachers and administrators (and legal authorities) need to consider rather than simply blowing it off as "stuff that happens off-campus." Much of it does relate to what goes on in the schools and does lead to disruptions.

The key is in separating "free speech" from the rest of the issues, but the concerns are still there.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:50 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Outside that, though, I think children should have the same free speech rights towards the school as adults do toward the government.

Wait a few years. But the way things are going I don't think the leveling of the field will be in the direction you like, though. Already you can't vid police in public places many places, although you can anyone else. Can what you say to or about them in public be far behind?
posted by umberto at 10:54 AM on June 15, 2011


Consider that the "free speech off-campus" may often relate to bullying, and consider the significant number of teen suicides.


No. Don't consider that. We' are getting 'protected' right into cages like veal.
posted by umberto at 10:55 AM on June 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


Consider that the "free speech off-campus" may often relate to bullying, and consider the significant number of teen suicides.

A school seems to me to be ill-equipped to handle off-campus bullying. Yes, they can have programs and whatnot, but they just don't have the presence (like, during the summer, or at the Y or wherever) to do anything about it. Notify parents, maybe, but that's the maximum that should have been done in the given cases here.
posted by DU at 10:59 AM on June 15, 2011


I may be free to speak, but I am not free to harm; I cannot justify the latter by citing the former. Society absolutely has a right to prevent harm even if it entails curtailing speech.
posted by oddman at 11:03 AM on June 15, 2011


DU, I would agree that schools are ill-equipped, yet as a teacher, I gotta tell you that pretty much all of us (except the soulless clock-punchers, and I grant they're out there) aren't willing to just do nothing.

Frequently, calling the parent of a disruptive/bullying/failing student will reveal the real problem, and it isn't the student at all. It's the parent. And you can tell me that there's only so much I can do there, and you'd be right...but at the same time, any teacher worth a damn understands that you don't get to quit on an issue like that. (Sadly, parents often don't get that memo.)

I apologize for my quickly-written reply. It's poorly worded. My concern is that people -- indeed, students -- are quick to yell out "Free speech!" when the issue isn't really one of speech at all. And there are limits on speech: fire in a crowded theatre, death-threats, etc. The fact is that we don't live under a blanket rule of all speech being free, so yes, we do have to consider the details.

And again, I think this ruling is correct. The schools shouldn't have made an issue of what the students were saying/posting off-campus. They should have made an issue of what those students were doing on-campus, because it's an awfully rare kid who's careful and clever enough to separate that sort of behavior.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:06 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Consider that the "free speech off-campus" may often relate to bullying, and consider the significant number of teen suicides.

Which should be handled in the criminal system not administratively.

Would you really let your vice-principal dealing with the discipline of a child committing something tantamount to involuntary manslaughter?

That argument is a complete red herring.
posted by Talez at 11:11 AM on June 15, 2011


I may be free to speak, but I am not free to harm; I cannot justify the latter by citing the former. Society absolutely has a right to prevent harm even if it entails curtailing speech.

Ooh. Careful there. I'm not comfortable with "absolutely" in that second sentence. There are a lot of ways to unpack that, most of them bad. Harm to whom? Physical harm, or harm to reputation? Is "lost profits" a kind of harm? How about "undermining the troops"?
posted by gauche at 11:12 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I may be free to speak, but I am not free to harm; I cannot justify the latter by citing the former. Society absolutely has a right to prevent harm even if it entails curtailing speech.

First, what exactly is 'harm?' And is any amount of censorship okay in order to prevent any amount of harm? If not, how should the sliding scale be constructed? And should harm to the government (and the corresponding censorship) not be treated specially, given the government's special enforcement powers and the historical role of government censorship in oppressive regimes?

If you've got an equitable, effectively and efficiently administrable, widely politically acceptable, and constitutional solution to those balancing acts then a lot of people would be keen to hear it.
posted by jedicus at 11:13 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


...any teacher worth a damn understands that you don't get to quit on an issue like that.

And you shouldn't, I agree. But there's a loooot of territory between "doing something about some bullying I witnessed/know about" and "censoring a student". What would you do about bullying if you were, say, the neighbor rather than the teacher? Call the parents, maybe call the police or social services, depending on the situation. You can't take authoritative action on behalf of yourself or the school.
posted by DU at 11:19 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Disgusted Supreme Court Can't Believe It Has To Rule Having Sex With American Flag Protected Under First Amendment (The Onion)
posted by dhens at 11:20 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think that schools have a right to prevent harms that aren't related to school. And more than that, really. They're schools. They're there to provide an education. They need to be focused on educating. *Parents* need to be focused on preventing harm to their kids, including things like supervising internet use and contacting other parents about issues and talking to their kids about their problems and all kinds of other things. Schools shouldn't be acting as the stand-in there for some kind of special disciplinary enforcement for every kid who's enrolled.

Bullying is totally wrong, but I think the troubling bit here is that these cases don't involve bullying, or any kind of threats being made against other students or anything. They involve students who're making fun of teachers on the internet. Using words like "fuck". In other words, teenagers behaving like teenagers generally do, just slightly dumber. If you're a high school teacher or administrator, you really need to be mature enough not to take it personally when a teenage student does something like that. I really can't believe that in either of these cases, the disciplinary action was really taken in the name of keeping the school running smoothly. It was somebody pissed off because a kid had put up stuff on Myspace making fun of them.

To say that schools somehow *need* the ability to punish students for anything like that is really pushing it. The adults need to be the adults, here.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:24 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


*Parents* need to be focused on preventing harm to their kids, including things like supervising internet use and contacting other parents about issues and talking to their kids about their problems and all kinds of other things. Schools shouldn't be acting as the stand-in there for some kind of special disciplinary enforcement for every kid who's enrolled.

The major problem - from my (limited) experience - is that many parents think schools should be doing the intervention. Every time there is a bullying case that involves online bullying the schools involved are hugely criticized for letting students away with this behaviour. Many parents just can't be bothered to monitor or take responsibility for their child's online behaviour.

That doesn't mean that this ruling is wrong, but it does mean that schools and teachers are continually being caught in the middle, with parents not wanting to step up to the plate (and it's amazing how many of them think it doesn't matter - it's just online talk, after all). The ideal would be more education for parents and students on the long term consequences of their actions, especially as their internet profile may follow them well into adult life.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:39 AM on June 15, 2011


Would you really let your vice-principal dealing with the discipline of a child committing something tantamount to involuntary manslaughter?

Not remotely what I said. The VP probably knows about the situation, though (if he/she is good at the job). These things don't spontaneously occur in a complete vacuum. I would hope that the VP intervenes before it gets to the point of suicide, even if it's just an unpleasant conversation with the bullying student.

It isn't easy to separate out the on-campus and off-campus bullying, because the bullying is a relationship that usually arises from contact within the school.

If you're a high school teacher or administrator, you really need to be mature enough not to take it personally when a teenage student does something like that. I really can't believe that in either of these cases, the disciplinary action was really taken in the name of keeping the school running smoothly. It was somebody pissed off because a kid had put up stuff on Myspace making fun of them.

Most likely. If all your students love you all the time, chances are you're doing it wrong (and if they all hate you, you're probably really doing it wrong).

Again, I'm not saying I don't agree with these rulings. I'm saying that students frequently run to hide behind the "free speech" and "off-campus" shields when things really aren't nearly so absolute or free of details.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:41 AM on June 15, 2011


Bullying... its almost looking like a social form of natural selection. You've got the bands of individuals that think like predators and the packs of (and sometimes lone) individuals who think like prey. The successful prey blend, escape, turn the tables, group-up, or ignore it all (successfully mind you, not in an unsuccessful work-place-massacre-20-years-later way). The not so successful prey latch onto the 'its not your fault, it will get better, not everyone is like this' and get angsty and depressed about the Magic Adult Solution not working.

And the Magic Adult Solution is stupid. High School, the mentality of it, doesn't end. You'll run into groups of bullies throughout your life. Not all the prey can go it alone and I see a lot of people running into problems when they have no one to stand around and help them. Not adults I mean people of their own age, people who can help form a 'pack'.

Social dynamics are part of the human experience. Its occasionally a sucky part of the human experience but it won't go away because we ignore it and pretend it isn't happening. That's like the kid who closes his eyes and thinks people can't see him.

So, TL;DR: I don't think you can stop bullying, you need to make the bullied more capable of avoiding it (however best works for them).
posted by Slackermagee at 11:45 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Good Christ. It now takes a court ruling to protect students taking the piss out of their teachers? I remember when teachers had some fucking hide on them. Hell, not just teachers, everyone.

I'm ready. Take me now, Lord. Enough of this shit.
posted by Decani at 12:31 PM on June 15, 2011


Society absolutely has a right to prevent harm even if it entails curtailing speech.

Society, as a whole, does not have any rights. Individuals have rights. Maybe if Society, en masse, incorporates, it will have rights but that day has not arrived.
posted by doctor_negative at 1:28 PM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I remember when teachers had some fucking hide on them.

I remember when, if you told a lie about a fellow student, a few people would hear it, instead of the entire school in one night thanks to one Facebook post, and it would circulate the web for months.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:04 PM on June 15, 2011


Urban planning has created some of the most livable cities I've known, and that's really the only criteria I care about. Copenhagen is excellently conceived for instance. Even uber-capitalist Hong Kong has significant planning.

Ancient Romans had a real thing for urban planning too. My theory is that they saw what a colossal mess Rome itself was and wanted to make sure that never again.
posted by Winnemac at 2:28 PM on June 15, 2011


That's so true, Winnemac, and yet another reason schools shouldnt be involving themselves in students' post-curricula behavior.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:01 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember when, if you told a lie about a fellow student, a few people would hear it, instead of the entire school in one night thanks to one Facebook post, and it would circulate the web for months.

So wait...in your high school, only "a few people" heard unsubstantiated rumors about that dude who shit his pants in frosh year, that girl who gets busy in bathrooms, and the teacher who secretly worships satan.

I guess my high school was totally different from yours.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:30 PM on June 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Winnemac, I think you may have meant to post that here.

Happens to the best of us.
posted by gauche at 6:38 PM on June 15, 2011


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