When Free Speech Is Involved, School Officials Are Slow Learners

Educators love to talk about technology, but have never shown themselves to be very good at understanding or using it. And when it comes to their students’ relationship with social media, school officials seem to be in a hurry to make complete fools of themselves.

Courts have given schools a lot more power and students a lot fewer protections than other government agencies. For example, the supreme court rules in 2005 that the Fourth Amendment does not prevent school officials from searching student lockers without probable cause. But students do not leave their free speech rights at the door when they enter school, and they certainly don’t give up rights outside of school simply by virtue of being students.

That isn’t stopping school officials from trying. Of course, we have the egregious case of the Lower Merion (Pa.) School District, which put software on school-issued MacBooks that enabled watching students at home through the iSight camera. The system avoided being hit by a temporary restraining order only by consenting to disable the software.

Facebook seems to mess with school officials minds in a particularly unfortunate way. Google “Facebook suspension” and you’ll find a bunch of cases where students have been disciplined for postings. In the Chicago suburb of Oak Forest, sophomore Justin Bird got a five-day suspension for setting up a Facebook fan page, since taken down, for students critical of teacher.

Courts, not surprisingly, take a dim view of this sort of thing. A federal magistrate ruled on Feb. 17 that school officials  at Pembroke Pines Charter High School in suburban Miami violated the rights of student Katherine Evans when they suspended her in 2007 after she created a Facebook title  “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met.”

It’s understandable that teachers and administrators are driven crazy by the rambunctious postings of their teenaged charges.  RateMyTeachers.com has been a thorn in their sides for years, but the anonymous postings have made it difficult or impossible to take action. Facebook’s transparency makes it possible to strike back and, unfortunately, they are taking advantage of it.

Personally, I think the fact that students are prepared to stand up on Facebook and criticize teachers without a cloak of transparency is admirable. Of course, students (and their legally responsible parents) have to realize that even constitutionally protected free speech can have unfortunate consequences. The laws of libel apply online just as they do in print. Maybe instead of trying to regulate the free speech of students, schools could invest in training these do-it-yourself publishers in a bit of press law. (Hint: A judge is very unlikely to consider a teacher a public figure, so while you can express your opinion, you’d better be prepared to prove any accusations.)

One Response to “When Free Speech Is Involved, School Officials Are Slow Learners”

  1. Fredric Alan Maxwell Says:

    Steve, Clarence “Silent Man” Thomas’ opinion in the Bong Hits For Jesus case is right out of the Twilight Zone.


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