In Some Cases, Students' Speech Rights Disappear in Cyberspace

Article excerpt

Byline: Casey Curlin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Before the rise of social-networking sites, students shared gripes about their teachers in the cafeteria or during gym class. But when Pembroke Pines, Fla., high school junior Katherine Evans took her complaints about her Advanced Placement English teacher to the Internet in 2007, her grumbling landed her in court.

On an issue that has divided the nation's legal system, a U.S. District Court in Florida ruled earlier this month that the student's Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I've ever met! Facebook group falls under the wide umbrella of protected speech, and Miss Evans could go forward with a lawsuit challenging her suspension and removal from AP classes as a result of the incident.

It was the opinion of a student about a teacher, that was published off-campus, did not cause any disruption on-campus, and was not lewd, vulgar, threatening or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior, Florida Magistrate Barry Garber wrote.

Coarse language and bad manners are nothing new on Facebook and other social-networking sites, but courts and state legislatures are divided over how to curb personal attacks and cyberbullying while respecting students' First Amendment rights to free speech.

Just weeks before the Florida decision, two courts in Pennsylvania took opposite stances on whether school officials could legitimately rein in offensive online postings by students.

It all depends on the circumstances of the case, said Mark Smith, director of Internet law services at the business and legal information company Pike and Fischer, noting that courts have focused on whether the student postings constitute a substantial disruption of normal school functions.

But Jonathan Zimmerman, a history instructor at New York University, warned his fellow liberals not to be so quick to oppose the school administration's effort to control their charges' Internet musings.

If we really care about protecting free speech, we need to teach our kids some basic principles of civility. And sometimes that means we have to restrict their speech, even on the Web, he wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Miss Evans, now a student at the University of Florida, created the Facebook site and encouraged fellow students to share their feelings of hatred for the instructor.

Although the site was online for only a few days, Miss Evans was later suspended and removed from her AP courses. The school cited the reason for disciplinary action as disruptive behavior and bullying/cyberbullying harassment.

The issue has not reached the Supreme Court, and the lower courts are struggling to update a landmark 1969 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, to the complexities of the information age. In that 7-2 decision, the high court ruled that three Iowa high school students should not have been suspended for wearing black armbands at school to protest the Vietnam War.

It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate, Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority. …