The Newest Threat to Good Teaching

In my last post, I talked about the efforts of a southern California school district to respond to the threats, harms or cries of despair that increasingly emerge in and through social media. Talking about the district's action offers an occasion to address yet another concern within the same general worry: the tarnishing of teachers and other school officials through social media. Here are some examples of what I'm referring to:

  • Among the incidents that have generated litigation, one of the most disturbing occurred at the hands of a Pennsylvania eighth grader. As explained by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District (2011) the eighth grader was so upset with her principal for disciplining her for dress-code violations, she created a MySpace page that, as the court put it, “contained crude content and vulgar language, ranging from nonsense and juvenile humor to profanity and shameful personal attacks aimed at the principal and his family.”
  • At the same time the J.S. case emerged, another disturbing case, Layshock v. Hermitage School District (2011), made its way through federal court. In the Layshock incident, a high school student created a fake MySpace page of his principal that indicated the principal took steroids, drank excessively, smoked marijuana, and shoplifted.  
  • More recently, in early 2013, a senior at a Nevada high school, following a varsity basketball game, took to Twitter and tapped out eight vengeful tweets aimed at a number of school officials. Each of the tweets used extensive sexual vulgarity and some included racist language. That case is now working its way through federal court. 

These are alarming incidents, but they comprise only a fraction of what goes on. In light of these cases and others that don’t make the news, it’s time to respond to the peril this behavior poses to honorable people, good teaching, and the orderly administration of schools.

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The national conversation might start with recent jurisprudence. In the Pennsylvania case involving the eighth grader, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the middle school violated the First Amendment when it suspended the student for creating the MySpace account. Relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the Third Circuit held that the account did not pose the threat of a “material and substantial disruption” of the school environment and therefore could not be regulated. Weighing the right of the school to discipline against the right to free speech, the concurring opinion said that society “must tolerate thoughtless speech like [the student’s] in order to provide adequate breathing room for valuable, robust speech—the kind that enriches the marketplace of ideas, promotes self-government, and contributes to self-determination.”

I believe wholeheartedly in self-government and self-determination, but if that’s the line that courts will start to take, say goodbye to good teaching in public schools. Once teachers determine that the trashing of their reputations is acceptable collateral damage for “breathing room,” teachers will stop enforcing any meaningful academic or disciplinary rigor for fear of retribution. Eventually, they will leave the profession altogether or work only in private schools.

A national conversation also needs to include parents, who, because of their children's age (under 18), must initiate lawsuits. In most of the cases involving minors, parents sue to protest the schools' modest punishments (e.g., ten-day suspensions). But to these parents and others who seek legal cover, we might ask: What message are you sending to your child when you try to exempt him or her from school discipline? Do you want other students to feel that they can mock school officials with similar impunity? What lesson(s) are you teaching about virtue and accountability? What will the impact be on education if your litigious response takes root nationwide? 

In the midst of the questions, I want to add my conviction that students should not forfeit their free speech rights. Moreover, parents remain the primary educators of their children. This is a sacred and non-delegable role that schools must respect and foster. However, students should not be allowed to go online and publish awful, potentially career-destroying things about their teachers (or anyone for that matter). That conduct serves no one, especially the other students and families who seek a first-rate eduation supported by a respectful campus environment. 

What happened in Pennsylvania and Nevada and what occurs throughout the country will only worsen if schools cannot respond. It is not a matter of censorship; it is a matter of justice.

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Joseph J Dunn
4 years 2 months ago
Indeed there must be an effective remedy for social media attacks against teachers and administrators. I'm not a lawyer, but I think the school districts err in making "creating a MySpace account", or the act of speaking out against a teacher or administrator, into an offense. The damage is done to the reputation and good name of the teacher or administrator, not to the school district. The accusation can be especially damaging because of the effectiveness of social media--far more damaging than a handwritten note that might have been circulated by a student in former years. The remedy and restitution for damage to reputation should be sought by the teacher or administrator, either by contacting the parents or, if that fails, by filing a civil suit. The plaintiff might seek an order requiring defendant (assuming defendant cannot prove the offensive allegations) to post a retraction of the accusations, and to apologize, on the same media. The offended teacher or administrator might also seek some monetary compensation. As Matt Emerson points out, the process of school districts claiming some power to regulate speech is pointless. But the process of individuals seeking redress for attacks against their good reputation is well-established. A few well-publicized victories in small-claims court would probably trigger some serious talks between parents and children regarding proper use of social media.
Jacqueline McGee
4 years 2 months ago
This is a serious problem. Having been an educator for 30+ years, I would find myself being very unhappy about the idea that a student could publish anything about me, however, untrue, and face no consequences for doing so. If the school is unable to take action (something I do not necessarily view as being so), then teacher organizations needs to back a few cases and file for civil damages. I do not necessarily believe that the child's behavior is not germane to the rights of the school district itself. Such behavior by one student can and does spill over into the overall school environment, encouraging other students to take similar actions if they become angry with a teacher or principal. This is, by the way, the same reason that trashing and bullying one student online can be part of the school's jurisdiction. It hurts the learning atmosphere of the school itself. No one can do his her job (teachers or students) if they believe they will be subjected to online harassment with no recourse.
Joseph Governali
4 years 2 months ago
Dear Liberals, I would like to thank you for destroying all that I grew up believing was right because it was set with values, morals, integrity and honor. When I was a child my parents always instilled in me to respect my elders and either get up for an elderly person or help my neighbor with their packages. But today thanks to your efforts all of that has changed, now even though i've spent $104 for a months' metro card it seems as though your children's rights over value my own. When entering either the train or bus and i see an elderly person standing with cane in hand while your children are scarttered in all of the seats this really ticks me off but God forbid I should say something because there would be a hanging. Since we're all intelligent adults here could you please tell me what kind of society you're building here when teaching your children that their rights are more then that of an adult or elderly person? Unless you're trying to create a society where children are taught to be responsible at an early age and think for themselves.....then i say to you Hiel Hitler....because that's what he thought as well as Po Pot in Cambodia where so many of the Khmer Rouge children actually killed their own parents. one day i watched as 4 youths made fun and taunted an old woman on the D-train downtown...because she kept falling "yes the same scenario, your brats occupying seats while an elderly woman was standing" . they taunted this poor old woman so much that she started crying and still they kept on because they have rights. There's one slight problem liberals I don't give a shit about your rights nor do i acknowledge your kids rights nor will i ever...I was standing and walked over and started screaming at the kids .....i'm 6' 2" heavy set build and yes i violated their rigthts tooo bad...but they shut up.....but here's the thing liberal what makes you think that can't happen to any of you...??? I'll see you all in Albany where I'm presenting a case that forces parents like you to have to pay a fare for all children 1year and above.....since you refuse to obey a moral issue i'll fight you on a legal issue.... You don't stand a chance at winning as I have 98% of New York State's senior citizens and handicapped behind me.....It's going to be a pleasure hearing you complain when you're forced to pay a fare for your children...but this is your own fault.

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