Student Speech on the Internet: The Role of First Amendment Protections

Student Speech on the Internet: The Role of First Amendment Protections

Student Speech on the Internet: The Role of First Amendment Protections

Student Speech on the Internet: The Role of First Amendment Protections

Synopsis

Student speech on the Internet, cyber speech, which occurs while off-campus is a growing concern for K-12 public school officials. Parents and students have claimed that First Amendment violations occur when school officials discipline students for their speech occurring off-campus on the Internet using a personal computer and personal Internet services. However, courts vary on the applicable legal standard for cases of off-campus student Internet speech since no specific U.S. Supreme Court ruling governs the question. Therefore, courts, school administrators, and legal scholars are re-examining the notion of students’ rights to freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment in the modern Internet and bullying era. Gibbs includes a recommended framework for addressing off-campus student cyber speech based upon the database of cases studied.

Excerpt

How would you respond to a student who used his personal home computer to create a website with mock obituaries and encouraged viewers to vote on which of his friends should die next, i.e. be the topic of the next mock obituary? What policies and doctrines would guide your decision-making process? You probably would be tempted to respond as the principal faced with this situation did and suspend the student. However, maybe even surprisingly to you, the student successfully challenged the suspension in court. Why? The short answer, the discipline violated the student’s free speech rights as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

School administrators across the nation have experienced such legal challenges when disciplining students for Internet postings made at home or at other off-campus vicinities. However, school administrators believe students can and should be disciplined for offcampus Internet speech that is threatening, vulgar, offensive, or disruptive regardless of whether the speech was viewed on-campus. In contrast, students and parents counter that school officials do not have jurisdiction to punish them for off-campus conduct. They contend the matter is for parental, not school discipline. Students and parents in turn claim that school officials overreact when they read websites with demeaning portrayals of school policies and/or school officials. Consequently, parents and students have, more so than not, successfully claimed that First Amendment violations occur when school officials attempt to regulate student speech that has occurred off-campus in cyberspace.

As such, the revolution of technology coupled with heightened concerns about cyber bullying presents new legal issues for educators

David L. Hudson, Jr., The First Amendment and the Media: Courts Continue to Grapple with Student Internet Speech (2003), available at http://www.mediainstitute.org/ONLINE/FAM2003/5-f.html.

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