Are these Illinois students getting the wrong lesson about Twitter and free speech?

[UPDATE: The high school principal is now threatening to suspend students who protest this situation. Never mind that the administrators’ decisions are arguably illegal for many of the suspended students. And apparently also never mind the First Amendment and students’ Constitutionally-protected speech rights. The quote from the Supreme Court at the bottom of this post? It’s worth reading again…]

If a student calls a teacher a MILF on Twitter, should he be suspended? If other students retweet his tweet – or give it a thumbs up – should they be suspended? The school administrators at Granite City High School in Granite City, Illinois think so. They’ve suspended multiple students for 5 to 10 days apiece (the longer suspensions were related to a student’s tweet that she should blow up the school so that she wouldn’t have to attend).

Unsurprisingly, online reactions have been quick and fierce (as has been the conversation on Facebook). Here are a few tweets since the suspensions:

Freejustice01

Freejustice02

Freejustice03

Freejustice04

Freejustice05

Freejustice06

Freejustice07

Courts have ruled that there is no First Amendment protection for speech that constitutes a ‘true threat.’ When a student says that she should blow up the school so that she doesn’t have to go, is her speech a ‘true threat?’ Arguable at best, but it’s hard to say without knowing more. But when her classmates forward that on, is that worth a suspension? Or maybe just a conversation?

Courts have consistently upheld students’ rights to have personal opinions. And they have repeatedly affirmed students’ rights to express themselves off campus as long as it doesn’t cause a ‘material and substantial disruption’ at school. And they have stated that for many controversies – for example, defamation (i.e., ‘you ruined my reputation’) – public schools should not insert themselves into what essentially are private lawsuits between individuals. So when a student says that his teacher is physically and/or sexually attractive, is that worth a suspension? Or maybe just a conversation? And when his classmates forward it along because they agree and/or think it’s funny, is that worth a suspension? Or maybe just a conversation?

The Granite City High student handbook says that inappropriate language/behavior includes ‘disrespect to a staff member off campus.’ But who defines this? And how much leeway do we give them? And is saying that a teacher is ‘hot’ even disrespectful? Students say every day that teachers suck, are terrible, are fat, are ugly, or whatever. Does that mean that they all should be suspended? And when kids write or say these things at home – electronically or vocally – do we want schools to have the right to reach that far into our neighborhoods, our homes, and our children’s lives?

Just because a school has a rule doesn’t mean it’s legal. School rules get overturned for illegality all the time. But of even greater concern are the messages that we send our students. As the Supreme Court said in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette:

That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.

What lessons do you think these Illinois students are learning about the law, personal responsibility, power, ethics, adult arbitrariness, and/or schools’ responsibility to uphold children’s legal rights?

19 Responses to “Are these Illinois students getting the wrong lesson about Twitter and free speech?”

  1. Saying you should blow up the school is liable to get you in trouble… just like if you tweeted you should blow up the post office, the white house, or whatever. There can be conversation as well, but I can’t really support the students on this one.

    • It’s all in the intent, context, etc. For example, if I’m upset at you, I might say ‘I hate you. I’m going to kill you!’ But that may or not be a true threat. It might just be me mouthing off. It’s hard to tell, which is why I said it’s arguable. But kids say stuff all the time that’s just blowing off steam. There’s no real, imminent intent or threat involved…

      What do you think of the rest of it?

      • Sorry Scott … a threat is a threat and can not be taken lightly. The punishment does not have to go to an extreme but physical threats can not be ignored in this day and age.

        Now, calling a teacher a MILF is walking a different line. While posting something online like that is probably not in their best interest from a digital footprint standpoint, it is non-threatening.

        Although, I don’t have court cases to back my opinion up on this matter at this time.

        • I didn’t say a true threat should be taken lightly. I said that it’s arguable whether it’s a threat in the first place and that more info is needed. I’m not disagreeing with that suspension. I might possibly disagree with the suspension of the people who retweeted it but again would need more info.

          I’m focused more on the main incident. I think that may constitute (illegal) abuse of adult power…

          • Scott,

            I’m probably more inclined to take any threat to bomb as a serious threat than you are because of personal experience. I grew up in one of the wealthier areas of Houston. From 4th grade on I took any threat by a classmate to blow things up seriously. Blowing up mailboxes and the like with pipe bombs were treated like childish pranks. The parents used money, and political clout to keep their kids out of jail. Eventually they blew up a math classroom and damaged 5 others. (above and to either side)

            I remember a classmate in tears. His parents were advocating for the bombers to get off scott free. Didn’t they understand that the bomb had been set to go off at 1 pm, during his math class. He would have been hurt, could have been killed – and his parents were supporting the people who set the bomb.

            There had been threats reported but no action taken because it was “just talk” and free speech.

            Because of that experience I think when someone makes a threat it must be investigated. While it is being investigated, the person should not be allowed in the area or near the people they threatened.

            So the student who threatened to bomb the school should be supsended until a police investigation is completed. If it was an empty threat, arrangements can be made to make up the work. If the threat turns out to be creditable – she should go to jail.

            The students who made the sexual comments should not be suspended. I do think the teacher should have the right to refuse to have the student in his/her class. We all know how easy it can be for a student to make a false allegation of abuse. The teacher should be allowed to protect themselves. If that means that the student doesn’t get to take AP History or and advanced science class – well they will learn that when you sexually harass someone there are consequences.

          • Hi Kimberly,

            I’m inclined to take bomb threats very seriously too! I just know that there always are contextual factors that make students’ statements either very real or completely flippant and harmless. That context is indiscernable in this case (although there appears to be much evidence that the threat wasn’t very real), which is why I said it was arguable.

            You raise an interesting take on whether calling a teacher a MILF constitutes sexual harassment. I’ll have to think about that… Thanks.

  2. School administration has shown an increasing inclination for punishing behavior that takes place outside of school. Technology has only served to increase this problem.

    Content aside, as a parent, I would first like the school to explain why they felt it necessary to monitor my kid’s internet activity. I am having a hard time coming up with any scenario in which this is acceptable.

    Even the bomb threat example, for which I suspect people are giving them leeway. If it is a credible threat it should have been turned over to the police. If not, I see no basis for a school-issued punishment.

    This is nothing more than an administrator attempting to enforce their so-called morality on students. Those of us who played sports know that it has been going on for decades.

    • If student’s are using hashtags to identify their school and/or their teachers, they should assume that those posts are monitored. It is the school’s responsibility to monitor their “brand” on social media.

      No school should ever have to explain why they are following posts regarding their facility on social media… especially since the information is posted in a public feed.

      If the student wouldn’t say it to the teacher’s face, that’s a good indicator that they shouldn’t write it in a public forum.

  3. In his comment above, Dr. McLeod suggests that some threats should be taken more seriously than others depending on “the intent, context, etc.” He goes on to point out that “courts have ruled that there is no First Amendment protection for speech that constitutes a ‘true threat.'” These points are both true and salient. However, how can school administrators or teachers distinguish between “credible threats” and empty threats without being able to monitor, or at least act on, students’ tweets?

    In regards to JeffS’s comment above, I disagree. I think that in cases where a student has threatened to blow up a school, the proper response is to assume the student is making a credible threat, turn the threat over the police immediately and let law enforcement take what action is necessary. This is not a question of “attempting to enforce . . . morality on students.” This is a question or protecting students.

    • I could not disagree with you more. Nuance and subtly is exactly what is needed in responsible leadership. All or nothing, zero tolerance policies are reactionary and simplistic when dealing with young people. When the issue of the tweet about blowing up the school was raised, that would have been an excellent context for a conversation with the student. In that conversation any adult would be able to ascertain the credibility of the threat. These policies that reflect The Patriot Act have no place in public schools or in society for that matter.

      And to make the argument that this is for the protection of students I would counter that the more clear and present danger is the the students’ freedoms.

  4. I dealt this a very similar situation as an administrator at my last school. We received a phone call of an extremely concerned relative of a student. She had just read his status on Facebook which stated a threat agains the students and teachers at the school. This initial threat was dealt exactly as it was in this article. However, there were other students who began to re-post the same status, which was later found to be song lyrics, as a form of protest. These students were not suspended as it was clear they were not threatening the school.

    As for the second topic. This is a slippery slope to say the least. Certainly in the state of Illinois there are specific laws relating to online posting as it relates to bullying, but I do not think that applies to this case. If the school becomes aware of incidents like this, typically via student or teacher complaint, I think a conversation with the parent is appropriate, but likely not resulting in discipline. Now, if this is a repeated issue that takes place during class time and the posts are obscene or profane that might be a different story.

    Just my thoughts.

  5. It’s my opinion that the school has had to intervene on these types of technology freedoms because if they don’t, our sue-happy society will condemn and punish the school for not stepping in and doing something about…(bullying, harassment, safety, etc.).

    Who is to say that one tweet/post could lead to a horrible incident? I don’t envy school districts for having to discern the grey areas of freedom of speech and predict potential future outcomes of a student’s tweet or post. It’s a no-win situation.

  6. What if a parent tweeted about blowing up the school?
    What if a teacher tweeted about blowing up the school?
    What if a parent tweeted about a teacher being a MILF?
    What if a teacher tweeted about a student being a MILF?
    What if a teacher tweeted about a parent being a MILF?
    What if every threat was taken seriously?

  7. I have been mulling the issue of calling a teacher a MILF via twitter over in my mind this AM. If I was in the hallway and heard a student call a teacher a MILF I would step in and discipline the student. Would I suspend the student, no I would not. I think if you step in quickly that is fine, but an overwhelming campaign of shock and awe will generate more of a backlash.

    NOW – does one student calling a teacher a MILF = bullying? No, if you are thinking of going into teaching but can’t handle an angry student calling you a name than step out.

    Does it equal harassment? I would again say no, unless it continues over a period of time.

    Overall, I would say that the school over reacted on the MILF situation.

  8. I think the larger issue here is “how do you deal with kids that say things in public spaces that they probably shouldn’t say.”

    In this instance, schools are damned if they do, damned if they don’t in regards to punishment. I have no clue how I’d handle this situation, though I’m sure the solution would include:

    1.) conversations
    2.) parents
    3.) students
    4.) not suspension

    We all know boys have these conversations, we just don’t know what to do quite yet when they have these conversations in a public place.

  9. Monday Morning Quarterbacking of other’s actions can often be risky business as (hopefully) the people who make these decisions may have more information than those of us who condemn or cheer them on.

    I was watching the news this morning and a banner scrolled by about a school that had a mercury containment problem in a science room (sounded like a someone spilled mercury) and that all parents were notified that things are A-OK and nobody was hurt.

    I wonder how a school would have responded 20 years ago in terms of notification? It is simply a different world today and “right” answers are hard to come by.

    In this matter as outlined by Scott:

    We would likely agree that individuals have rights to free speech, but they have limits.

    We would likely agree that what is “off campus” and what comes back “on campus” is getting a lot more blurred today due to technology access and social media. (In my opinion, this is getting really tough).

    We would also likely agree that school officials believe some level of responsibility for helping students navigate ethical behavior (one can say schools should not teach these things, but by simply having and enforcing rules, schools do).

    So… what to do?

    My response would be the same process we have always done. Due process, weigh facts, get both sides of the story, draw analogous lines – “Does this new thing look like that familiar thing? and react in a manner that takes balances the rights of the child, the need to keep him/her in school, the safety and well-being of students (and staff).

    So… to answer Scott about students who call a teacher fat, or ugly… depending on the repetition of the behavior and the impact on the teacher, I might take increasingly significant steps in terms of consequences (and I would not rule out suspension depending on the severity and context of the behavior).

    Depending on the context and severity of what was said in the original news story, suspension might or may not be justified (I don’t have all the information needed to second-guess – although at a glance suspending someone who “liked” a post may seem extreme).

  10. One result of this school’s actions is that the kids will come to believe that there was something noble about the original student’s act.

  11. Interesting. What if the student had put up a sign in the student social area or saying “Ms. So-and-so is a MILF” or one that said, “Ms. RIley is someone I would like to f*ck” (let’s not forget what the acronym stands for). What would be the proper response? Kids say nasty stuff about teachers all the time. When do you step in? I’m not buying the free speech thing. There are consequences for speech. Would they post the same thing about a bigger kid’s mom?

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