Teens learn free speech isn’t free of consequences

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

“This is going on your permanent record” may be the most time-honored threat to wayward students, but in a digital age, it’s actually true.

The record is the Web and not a manila file folder in the principal’s office. Young people who tweet in offensive or controversial ways could find themselves called to account in forums far away from the classroom. The very nature of tweets — spontaneous and unfiltered and distributed well beyond a core group of friends — makes them potent and sometimes problematic.

In efforts to curtail rogue tweets by students and presumably to protect their future reputation, school administrators, coaches and others are curbing online conduct in a variety of ways:

  • High schools across the country have suspended students for off-campus tweets that reflect badly on the school, arguing that even personal posts can have a disruptive impact on education.
  •  Coaches and sports directors are hiring firms to monitor student athlete tweets for content involving sex, drugs, alcohol or otherwise inflammatory content. At some universities, student athletes are told to suspend tweeting during football season.
  •  Taking a cue from The Scarlet Letter, the website Jezebel compiled racially insensitive tweets directed toward President Obama by high school students across the country, naming names and even calling the students’ schools. The tweets — posted by students under their real identities — covered the full range of bigotry, from racial epithets to basketball stereotypes, with the N-word in abundance. In response, Giga OM asked, “When does shaming racist kids turn into online bullying?”

The answer to that is never. It would be a mistake to mischaracterize the denunciation of racially offensive speech as abusive. To the contrary, that give-and-take (or more precisely “say something deeply offensive and get verbally pummeled”) is what free speech in America is all about. That’s the flaw in virtually every strategy to keep students in both high school and college on the social media straight and narrow. High school is all about preparing the next generation for citizenship. We teach them civics, history, a smattering of math and science and hand them a diploma.

But we too often also try to control their every move. That’s literally the case with the news last week that a sophomore at John Jay High School in San Antonio was expelled after refusing to carry an ID with a computer chip designed to track the movements of every student in the school.

Students have constitutional rights long before someone hands them a high school diploma. While those rights grow with age, the free-speech rights of high school students are not inconsequential. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas famously wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969, it “can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

In addition to teaching a core curriculum, we should be teaching lessons in liberty, giving students a full taste of the rights and responsibilities inherent in a democracy.

Jezebel was widely criticized for outing the racially insensitive tweeters, with critics arguing that we should not ruin the future of students who have engaged in intemperate speech any more than police should disclose the identity of a teen shoplifting suspect.

But Jezebel was onto something. If we truly believe that in a democracy every voice counts, we shouldn’t be trying to contain the expression of 17-year-olds across the country. The teens who used racial epithets to describe President Obama have discovered something they will never forget. Free speech is not free of consequences. It’s a lesson better learned early than late.

This article was first published in USA Today Dec. 3.

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