Why even young whippersnappers, unfortunately, have rights (le sigh)
21 Tuesday Jun 2011
Do students have a First Amendment right to make fun of their principals and teachers on Facebook and other social-media sites? Or can schools discipline them for talking out of school?
In a pair of free-speech rulings, a federal appeals court in Pennsylvania last week came down on the side of the students. In both cases, the court said that schools were wrong to suspend students for posting parodies of their principals on MySpace — one in which a boy made fun of his principal’s body size, and another in which a girl made lewd sexual comments about her principal.
The speech in these cases is the sort of derisive put-down of authority figures that students have always engaged in. In the past, kids used to say these things to each other in the cafeteria or at recess, or pass them in notes during class.
Now, they post their digs on social-media sites — where principals and teachers can sometimes see them. With the explosion of Facebook, Twitter, and other online forums for self-expression, the issue of what rights students have on these sites is a critical free-speech issue — as important, arguably, as what speech rights they have in the school building. (Read the rest on Time.com…)
My high school faced a similar dilemma some years ago. We didn’t have MySpace or Facebook back then (this was, I think, in 2001 or 2002) and nobody took anyone to court, but there was a student who set up a site where other students from my school could voice their opinions, positive or otherwise, about our teachers. You can imagine that many of the posts were not filled with praise or adoration, and of course, teachers found out about the site soon enough. Some were, understandably, peeved. One teacher was so enraged, he confronted the senior who created it, and threatened to stop writing college admission recommendation letters for the entire senior class.
Now, as annoyed as many of the teachers were, there were also many who sided with the students’ right to say unflattering things about them. After all, how can you teach students about freedom of expression and then punish students for exercising those rights? There were plenty of comments that were unfair and uncalled for, as there are in any forum, but except in the areas of slander and libel (that is, false malicious and defamatory accusations) and bullying, you can’t tell students, “You have the right to express your opinions — as long as they are nice and I agree with them.” Yeah, that’s definitely what Voltaire said. Word for word.
I also don’t like the idea of schools restricting off-campus student activity. Schools have jurisdiction over students while they are on school grounds, but I don’t see how schools can limit student expression when they are at home using their own computers and their own Internet connections that their own parents paid for. That’s just ridiculous. The schools could have used these criticisms and parodies as a jumping point for open and honest dialogue about expression, civil liberties, students’ rights, teachers’ rights, education, responsible digital citizenship — any number of topics that would have sparked interesting and thoughtful conversations and debates, but alas, they wasted a perfectly good teachable moment.