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.
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.