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).
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?