Schools and social media: when off-campus means off limits

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ten students were suspended from a southern Illinois high school this month because of their tweets. The disciplinary action raises significant questions about how much student speech a public school can control.

The initial suspensions stemmed from a single tweet from a student in Granite City who used a crude acronym to describe the sexual appeal of a female teacher. A handful of friends following the student’s feed retweeted the message. As with countless conversations along similar lines at high schools everywhere, the students enjoyed their shared joke and nothing more came of it.

That changed when the school administration was alerted to the tweet. That led to five-day suspensions for the tweeter and those who retweeted it.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the school then raised the ante, scouring Twitter for inappropriate comments by students. They came across a couple of other comments about teachers and one from a student who joked that she should bomb the school so that she wouldn’t have to attend. Three of her friends retweeted the message. Suspensions followed for all of the students.

Can a public school punish a student for comments posted off-campus on Facebook or Twitter? Federal courts have differed on this question, but have consistently embraced two legal principles:

1. Students have free-speech rights, both in school and off-campus.
2. Public schools can punish that free speech if it poses a substantial threat of a disruption to the school.

In this case, there was no disruption until the school decided to step in proactively to punish the students. A sophomoric tweet about an attractive teacher would have gone unnoticed. Of course, the joke about bombing the school merited more attention. That obviously warranted a conversation and counseling, and possibly disciplinary action.

Online comments on the incident have generally boiled down to “These kids are getting what’s coming to them,” but it’s important to remember the fundamental principles here. A public school is an arm of government and is prohibited from limiting the free speech of students — also known as citizens — unless it can show disruption. In this case, the government actively searched for comments it could punish and then suspended students for what it found.

That’s a bit chilling. Are students now to be on notice that the school will be reviewing all of their posts on social media? How about those that complain about the school or teachers? Can those be punished? Could an off-campus conversation about an attractive teacher lead to suspensions?

In its defense, the school cites a student handbook alerting students to behave responsibly on social media, saying they should know the rules. But schools also need to follow the rules, including not overreaching, seeking out potentially offensive remarks and suspending students from publicly funded schools.

Suspensions too often seem to be a “one size fits all” penalty. In this case, students received suspensions ranging from one to two weeks of class time, some for just retweeting. Given the nature of the  offense, you would think these students would benefit from more education, not less. How about an extra hour a day on mutual respect, civic responsibility and the First Amendment?

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