A court case from Connecticut is stirring a debate over where to draw the line on what schools can or should do about things students say online. High school student Avery Doninger railed online against the “douchebags” in her school district and urged her classmates to bombard the superintendent with complaints to “piss her off more.” When the school said that this was inappropriate for a student government leader and told her she couldn’t run for senior class secretary, she sued.
The lawsuit has gone up and down in the courts, but so far the student has lost. All the legal nitty-gritty on the Doninger case is available starting here, courtesy of NSBA’s Legal Clips e-newsletter.
The Hartford Courant reports here that, “In his ruling on a pioneering Internet free speech case last month, U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz offered something of a plea to higher courts: Revisit the boundaries of free speech for students.” These legal issues are a lot harder in the Internet age, he said.
In response to the case, as FOX News puts it, “Connecticut may become the first state to protect the ‘right’ of children to rip into their teachersanytime, anywhere.” A state senator has proposed a law that would say anything Connecticut students post online, except a threat, is protected from any school response.
NSBA lawyer Tom Hutton tells the Courant and FOX that a proposal like that would go well beyond denigrating teachers to things like cyberbullying and would be unusual in that it even would limit what kinds of acceptable use policies schools could adopt for school equipment.
The court case and the news coverage have been crackling across the blogosphere, most of whose denizens are, naturally enough, strongly inclined toward the idea of freedom of Internet speech. A blog called Techdirt applauds the proposed legislation and criticizes NSBA for “fighting against the bill,” an apparent reference to Hutton’s observations about the measure.
“This floored me,” says this entry on ScienceForums.net, accusing Hutton of arguing that “The school board is best to decide what part of the constitution will be followed.” Actually, his point wasn’t about the courts and the constitution but simply that school boards are better suited than slow-moving state legislatures to tailor policies to fast-changing developments like technology.
And these are the sinister implications Myshortpencil.com sees in Hutton’s take that the issue for educators, who don’t want to be the Internet police, is when a student’s off-campus expression has an negative impact in school:
Mind you that this rule would cover the speech of parents as well as students. If parents or community members say something that affects the school, then they can be hauled into court. Do you really think the only speech schools care about is student speech?
This gets it backward, though, since it’s the student hauling her school into court, not the other way around. Maybe the feared crackdown is that schools would start telling moms and dads they can’t run for student council? As for the concern over cyberbullying, Myshortpencil basically seems to say victims just need to toughen up.
There have been a few skeptical blog reactions to the proposed Connecticut law. Dr. Laura’s blistering blurb includes this:
Imagine if the teacher had put on a website that this girl was a “douche bag.” Would anyone defend the teacher or would he or she have to take sensitivity classes and then be fired anyway?
Similar “what-are-we-teaching-kids-today?” sentiment voiced here on, well, a fitness forum.
If all that isn’t enough to satisfy the true First Amendment junkies out there, check out this recent episode of C-Span’s “America and the Courts” program on the 40th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The program features the recollections of Mary Beth Tinker herself, one of the students who won their case over being told they couldn’t wear black armbands to school to protest the war in Vietnam. You also can hear Hutton’s take on where things stand today with the Tinker case and student speech.
And for some great resources and practical tips for dealing with these tricky issues, visit the NSBA Council of School Attorneys eDocs Store, a treasure trove of materials you can download in these cost-conscious times for next to nothing (most cost seven bucks). The collection on Technology includes resources about online speech.