Comments on Net may snare students, teachers

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

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As the school year begins across the country, students and teachers must realize that offensive online comments may get them suspended, expelled or fired.

Sometimes people act as though the Internet were a legal liability-free zone. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Students have been arrested, expelled or suspended for comments on social-networking sites. In his commentary “Sophomoric speech is free speech too,” Ken Paulson cites numerous examples of kids punished for unflattering online speech. In one instance, Katie Evans, a student in Florida, had to take her high school to court after being punished for criticizing a teacher on Facebook.

Similarly, teachers have been reprimanded, demoted or forced to resign for online expression. For example, a Washington teacher was transferred after she blogged unfavorably about a union official and another school employee. Earlier this month, a teacher in Cohasset, Mass., resigned under pressure after making unflattering comments about residents in the area, calling them “arrogant” and “snobby.”

Students may learn about the value of free expression in social studies, civics or history classes. But outside the textbook, the ideal often doesn’t match the real. Frequently, public school officials don’t practice what they preach, and students are often punished for comments online even though they were made off-campus.

If the student speech constitutes a “true threat” — a murky area of law — students may face not only school punishment but also criminal charges. If students write false statements of fact about school officials, they could face defamation charges in a civil court.

Similar caveats apply to public school teachers. Public employees have less free-speech protection than they might think — even for online speech created off-campus. If a public school teacher denigrates her students or colleagues, the school could argue that the speech will damage day-to-day working relationships — a key factor in courts’ legal analyses.

Even though a public school teacher may speak on his or her own time off-campus, courts may find — as they often do with student speech — that the school has jurisdiction because of the real-world effects the speech has on the campus.

Students shouldn’t be punished unless their online speech threatens or causes a serious disruption at school. But the reality is different.

Teachers should have the right to voice their opinions online as well. They often are in the best position to give informative critiques of what is going on in the schools. But again, the reality is different.

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