Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Can Public Schools Punish Student Speech on the Web?

I am a Facebook user as many of you are. It is becoming normal to see someone posting derogatory comments about a friend or an ex on their Facebook status. And more and more cases are cropping up in the media regarding high school students and Facebook comments. Just how much is student speech protected? Can the school intervene, even if the action in question was posted off-campus?

In this article, an Oak Grove High School student, Megan Wisemore from Missouri, went to her Facebook status to complain about another student. She posted a comment that said, “You’re a skank and I hate you with a [expletive] passion.” Now, she claims this was only meant for her and her friends to see, however, the next day in school the two girls got into a altercation. Wisemore, who wrote the comment did not throw a punch, but both girls ended up being suspended. Wisemore's mother said the school should not intervene and it was her daughters First Amendment right to say what she said. Student speech is protected somewhat under the case, TTinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969) which stated, “It is established that public school students have First Amendment rights unless there is a real threat of violence or a substantial disruption to the educational environment.” In J.S. v. Bethlehem Area Sch. Dist., 807 A.2d 847 (Pa. 2002), the court affirmed that school officials had the authority to discipline a student for an off-campus website containing derogatory and threatening when they amounted to an actual or substantial disruption of education.

Since the rise of social-networking this is getting harder to define. State courts seem to be all over the place on this issue.? For example, the Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., No. 06-116 (July 10, 2007) , a student made a fake MySpace page, citing the principal as a “big whore” who smoked a “big blunt.” The court said it was within the student’s free speech rights. While in another case in Pennsylvania, J.S. v. Blue Mt. Sch. Dist., 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 7342 (3d Cir., Apr. 9, 2010) which also concerned a student who made a fake MySpace page of their principal, calling him a “tight ass” who liked “hitting on students and their parents.” J.S. v. Blue Mountain said the student’s speech was not protected and upheld her suspension from school.

The Oak Grove High School upheld the students suspension stating, "The Missouri Association of School Boards said schools may discipline off-campus behavior, if a connection is shown between the behavior and something happening in school." The Missouri Association of School Boards also said, "the courts go back and forth on the issue." Missouri lawmakers are currently considering a provision to specifically include cyberbullying in school safety legislation.

Because of the growing popularity of social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, the courts are going to be dealing with more and more cases like these everyday.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting scenario regarding student's free speech rights. Social networking sites have made it harder for the Courts to decide whether to punish students for what they say on or off school grounds.

    It was surprising to see how in two very similar cases regarding student speech, Courts ruled differently. I guess it will be wise for students to think twice before posting something on social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook.