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First Amendment Rights and Social Media in Schools ***Updated ***

posted Mar 27, 2012, 1:37 PM by Kevin Morrison   [ updated Mar 28, 2012, 1:26 PM ]
It is unfortunate, but another public school, this time a middle school, has punished a student for exercising their free speech rights online.  I first saw the article on CNN (click here for the original article, the complaint is available to download below).  On a purely intellectual level, I wonder what drives some school administrators to openly risk lawsuits by investigating the online activities of their students.  

In this case I was more confused than usual because the student was punished because she  posted a comment to Facebook saying she "hated" one of the adult hall monitors because she was "mean."  For this offense she was given detention and forced to apologize to the adult.  Now, this is a little girl.  Not a politician or public figure.  And she called an adult authority figure "mean."  A 12-year old saying they hate an adult authority figure and calling them "mean" is about as benign an expression of dissent as we could expect from a 12-year old student.  If you are unable to cope with a student saying that, quite frankly it is difficult to image how or why you started working with children in the first place

Things then escalates shortly after her mother attempts to talk with the principal about the issue with the hall monitor. Apparently, the student posted a comment on Facebook asking who the "F#@$" turned her in.  The comment had an expletive so she was given in school suspension.  The student was not at school when she made the comment.  She was at home, communicating with her friends on Facebook.  Using an expletive at home is beyond the province of school administration.  It is PARENTING.  Not education.  And her parents have a right to allow her to speak as she chooses in public, and punish her when she speaks inappropriately.  If they choose not to punish her for swearing (or even if they do) it does not give the school a right to do so.

This then escalates again when the school calls her in to investigate a parents allegation that she is talking to another student (a boy) about sex on Facebook.  According to the complaint the boy admitted to starting the conversation about sex but they made the girl hand over her Facebook and email passwords so they could look through her accounts.  The student who was humiliated and whose rights they violated over was not even the instigator of the discussion.  She was participating in a discussion about sex.  

This conduct is outrageous for a number of reasons.  First, it does not sound like the boy was punished.  Only the girl.  Which is worrisome.  Is it okay for a boy to instigate a discussion of sex online but punish a girl for participating? 

Second, the school appears to be trying to raise the girl themselves, and doing a terrible job of it.  These were obviously issues for her parents to address.  Not schools.  Not the Sheriff's Office.  Parents.  If she is being rude (calling someone "mean"), vulgar (using expletives) or manifesting an interest in sex the parents should be addressing those issues.

Third, it seems an awful lot like the school overreacted, was called out for over reacting and tried to cover its tracts and ended up going too far trying to find a reason to punish the girl.  In school suspension for expletives used online is a pretty flimsy excuse for in school suspension, and doing so shortly after her mother had asked about the previous detention is suspicious.  

Fourth, according to the complaint school officials had forced other students to disclose their Facebook and email passwords.

What it really comes down to is a hard lesson for parents.  You can't always trust the school administration, and you need to teach your child to protect themselves from authorities who would abuse their power. You child needs to know that if they get in trouble at school and something, anything, seems wrong they can call you, no questions asked.  That if a police officer is present they need to ask to speak to you or to speak to an attorney.  They need to know they can say no to school administration.

In a similarly disturbing situation, an Indiana senior was expelled for using the word "F$%#" on Twitter.  Apparently the Principal tracks all of his students twitter accounts.  Creepy.
Kevin Morrison,
Mar 27, 2012, 1:37 PM