Student “Freedom” of Speech vs. Defamation of Character

This is one of the few topics I get very heated about, due to the relationship I have with a teacher (we have one in the family) who is always fearing she will be bullied online because she is the only one in her school that gives honest, non-inflated grades… So, if you don’t like reading strong opinionated columns, skip this blog post. I’m about to open a keg of it and something else…

Basically, a new horrible trend (though, you HAD to see it coming) of cyberbullying teachers and principals is taking shape in our “free and brave” society. Unfortunately, it shows nothing more than a cowardly abuse of power…

You see, when a student does such a thing as, say, creating a fake, very lewd and slanderous social networking page about an educator, schools often discipline. I mean, why not, right? First of all, the kid is attacking staff; secondly, clearly the parents aren’t disciplining – so someone has to…

But then the grand old ACLU gets involved and backs the snotty family lawyers as they try to stand behind a “freedom of speech” excuse, saying the school has no right to police speech and behavior off campus grounds and off school time.

Just like THIS STORY, instead of parents disciplining their child and being mortified that their child is a little jerk, they fight tooth and nail for their right to be that little jerk. Helicopter parenting at its best, folks!!

Many judges are, however, recognizing the school’s right to discipline if the actions of the student pose a substantial disruption of or material interference with a school. So depending on how fast the online content spreads (like a rumor would), the school can discipline if the spreading is interfering with the normal course of the school’s day.

The whole argument taking place in the courts is so disgusting (and unnecessary) on so many levels…

FIRST, when will lawyers, judges, parents and everyone else recognize the fact that posting malicious content online is slander/libel/defamation of character… 20 years ago if I had taken an add out in a local paper featuring my principal’s picture and nasty writings, I would have been expelled. There is no logical or theoretical difference between writing something in a newspaper and publishing something online, except for the fact that the online publication has the chance to reach millions more. The sooner that posting malicious content online gets recognized in the eyes of the law for what it truly is (slander and defamation – not freedom of speech), the better off everyone will be.

SECOND: the fact that these kids were only suspended and not expelled is just a grand example of what is wrong with schools today – they have no more backbone and no power to truly discipline. Clearly parents are not disciplining… so shouldn’t someone do it? Parents are more concerned with making sure their kids are NEVER disciplined, than they are that ethical and moral justice be served. If your child is a bully, and you did nothing to stop it because you are a weak parent and didn’t know how your child was saying/doing online, then you should be ashamed and embarrassed. Take the suspension, shut up, and do a better job maintaining civility in your home.

So what needs to happen is thus:

1. Courts need to put an adaptive 21st century law on the books that states malicious writing online can be considered punishable by laws of slander/libel.
2. Then schools need to be given the power to protect its staff and discipline students for malicious use of 21st century technology. Schools are operating with 20th century laws; that needs to change.
3. Finally, parents need to start monitoring how their children behave online. If they have a bully in the house they need to know so they can stop it before the situation gets worse.

Because, I believe schools should be allowed to do this (once the bullying = slander laws are on the books): when a student bullies a teacher online, the school can sit down with the parents of the bully and say, “You’re child is a brat. You failed to prevent this from happening. Now we can either severely punish them. Or teacher X will sue the pants off you in civil court for defamation of character.”

Maybe this will make parents start taking things seriously and holding their kids accountable for their actions.

This is not a case or argument for freedom of speech. This is a case and for the fact that bullying online needs to be given a clear definition (slander/libel) and the argument for schools to be given clear permissions to protect staff and other students from being victimized.

I say this because clearly parents are failing to do their job at home in preventing the bullying from taking place. They are the key to this; they have the power to stop the bullying before it happens. If they would only monitor their child online, bullying could go away. If they fail to do so, and bullying takes place (whether a peer or educator is the victim), punishment needs to be levied. Right now, it seems the option isn’t even there – or at least it gets contested when exercised…

The first story below is a detailed case of one such incident in Pennsylvania. The second story highlights the same case as well as another in the state that had a different outcome.

Read them both and remember, your child should not have a right to be an a-hole online to another child or (especially an) adult. I don’t care how much angst they have, there is a difference in saying something in the halls where a few ears can pick it up, and writing something on a website where a million eyes can pick it up.

If you are going to fight for their right to maintain that freedom of malicious speech online, then you are just as much at fault… not to mention you are a pretty bad parent for not teaching your kids how to play nice and be a good, decent human being. For a country that preaches religion on a grandiose scale, we certainly have forgotten how to teach our youngling to “do unto others…”


February 5, 2010
Blue Mountain discipline in MySpace case upheld by federal court
By Peter Bortner

Blue Mountain School District has the power to discipline a student who created a “lewd and vulgar” computer profile of the middle school principal even though she did it at home, a divided federal appellate court panel ruled Thursday.

In a 42-page opinion, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 that the district could discipline the student, identified only as J.S., because her action created a reasonably foreseeable potential of substantial disruption at the school.

February 4, 2010
Rulings cloud issue of school MySpace suspensions
By Maryclaire Dale, Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA – Federal appellate judges wrestling with whether schools can discipline students for Internet speech posted offsite reached different rulings Thursday in two Pennsylvania cases.
One 3rd U.S. Circuit Court panel upheld the suspension of a Schuylkill County eighth-grader who posted sexually explicit material along with her principal’s photograph on a fake MySpace page.

However, a different three-judge panel said that school officials in Mercer County cannot reach into a family’s home and police the Internet. That case also involves a MySpace parody of a principal created by a student at home.

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