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Social Networks and the First Amendment

The high school boys thought it would be really funny to set up a MySpace page for one of their teachers.  So after soccer practice they went to one of their houses and got to work.

As it turned out, the teacher was one of their favorites, so the whole thing was silly – a joke rather than critical or even defamatory.  The teacher was amused, but concerned about the intrusion into his privacy as well as the potential the action had for harm to his reputation.  The boys were contrite, their parents were supportive of the teacher, and the incident would have ended there were it not for the teachers’ committee of the National Honor Society who insisted that the boys be ousted.  The administration overruled their decision, opting for 6-months probation instead, so the committee immediately resigned.

What these boys did was nothing compared to what students in other districts have done in terms of disparaging teachers and administrators on various websites.  Profanity laden and vicious, postings by students about their teachers and administrators on social websites make what students did in my high school seem almost quaint.  In some instances students have been suspended, leading to lawsuits over the First Amendment rights of students. 

In an opinion piece in USA Today, Ken Paulson reminds readers of the Tinker vs. Des Moines 1969 Marybethtinker_1decision in which the Supreme Court famously noted that “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Paulson, president of the truly wonderful Newseum (you can spend days there) suggests that the best way to handle “ugly and possibly defamatory” postings by students is to treat them like adults.  “If the content is illegal or threatening, charge them, “ he says.  “If the content is libelous, sue them, as some teacher and principals have done.”  If the content is neither, he adds, “…accept a provocative posting as the free speech that it is.”

Accepting critical, even hurtful postings from kids isn’t easy, but Paulson is theoretically right.  Still, it will be interesting to see if these students' future employers would agree that an employee's ugly and critical rant on Facebook is simply an exercise in free speech or a request to be fired.



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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.