Students cyberbully principals; Court throws out cases

Students cyberbully principals; Court throws out cases

Summary: The U.S. Supreme Court decided that students creating fake online profiles and labeling their principles as 'pedophiles' and 'drug offenders' is acceptable. Should this be the case?


The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to clarify the grounds in which students can be punished by public schools for off-campus online activity this week.

On Tuesday, the court turned down two appeals from Pennsylvanian schools that were successfully sued by students who were suspended for derogative social media activity. The students in question created mock profiles of their principals as sex addicts and drug users on MySpace.

One eight-grade girl created a fake profile of her principal complete with photo, calling him a "sex addict" who enjoyed "hitting on students". The other, a high school senior, mocked his principal as a drug user and a "big fag".

In addition, a girl from West Virginia sued her school after she was suspended for creating an online site that ridiculed a fellow classmate. The page was called 'S.A.S.H.,' which the student stated stood for "Students Against Sluts' Herpes."

The creators of these profiles argued that their online posts were off-limits to school authorities, and with the exception of the S.A.S.H. page creator, won their case and suspension was overturned.

The appeals court saw the cases as "vulgar, juvenile and nonsensical that no reasonable person could take its content seriously." In addition, the activities did not take place on school grounds, and were outside of school hours.

The cases highlight how social media has blurred the lines between on-campus and off-campus speech, and has put a school's duty of care responsibilities in to question. These rulings are an example of how confused the current legal system is when it concerns expanding social networking and the clash of free speech rights.

In the UK, a school still is considered to maintain duty of care outside of school grounds and hours to a certain extent. If a child is bullied at a bus stop, for example, then the school can still issue detentions and bring the attention to parents.

The court cases above come down to location -- if a child paraded down a school corridor with a sign calling their principal a pedophile, then no-one would blink at their immediate suspension. However, doing it online, under an imagined distance from reality, means that parents believe they can sue school districts for punishing their children.

The intention is exactly the same. Duty of care should relate both to students and staff, and online bullying campaigns, or comments that could future cause civic libel suits, should be treated in exactly the same manner as someone making the remarks on school grounds.

When I was at university, a Facebook group was created against a library staff member who was ridiculed for weeks before it was noticed by the institution. The group was for "those who hate the little fat library man". Now, we all knew him. The guy that told us to 'shush'. Yes, irritating if you coughed too loudly, but he was hardly running a library dictatorship. The group was joined by over 350 people before it was shut down, as Facebook reserves the right to close down groups that are considered offensive.

The point is that online bullying allows for a wider scope of abuse -- as people join, what was once an off-hand remark by one student becomes an online campaign. Schools too may have underestimated the power of social networking -- and now the law has been left behind.

The recent cases offered the justice system a chance to update their student-speech rulings for the modern age. Instead, they are still basing decisions on a ruling from 1969 -- which says schools cannot punish 'non-disruptive' speech.

If speech is not "materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school", then it is acceptable. This particular decision gave students a First Amendmant right to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War at the time. However, four decades later, we've moved on  -- and current issues have not been addressed properly.

Bullying may be conducted through a computer off-site, but this does not mean the effects are not felt on campus, and be 'disrupting'. Creating a Facebook group that is seen by members of a school is no different to handing out leaflets on site. The information may be juvenile, but it still has the same effect -- it is still harassment, and it still causes hurt or worse in some cases.

Whether words are stated verbally or online, the mental impact remains similar. Perhaps it is worse digitally, as online bullying can be accessed by a wider audience.

Student protection can go too far, in order to avoid court cases or bad publicity for a school district. Why is it that a child can call a teacher a pedophile or rapist online, sue, and then be considered the victims? The teachers often doesn't, or can't, sue in kind for defamation -- even though it can cause severe embarrassment and may affect both their personal and professional reputation.

Some may argue that it is simply stupid, juvenile nonsense, and yet what lessons are we teaching children if they are not taught how to conduct themselves properly online? Who will children blame when they call their future employer a 'fag' on Facebook, in the public domain, then get fired or face a libel case?

Instead of explaining to their children why this behaviour is unacceptable, reading them the riot act and creating a sensible punishment, the parents choose to sue the school.

Cyberbullying among young people is on the rise, and yet there are no clear guidelines that school districts can follow. School officials seem to be 'pick and mix' when it comes to online behaviour -- they can fire a member of staff for an image on Facebook, but a child's right to free speech is protected, no matter if they are accusing education professionals of being sex offenders or worse.

Why do we consider it acceptable for students to harass each other or educational staff online, whereas if they did the same in public, it is not socially correct behaviour? A child walking down a school hall with a banner saying 'my teacher is a pedophile' is punishable, but for them to commit the same act, just using an online medium, parents defend their darlings and attempt to claim damages from the legal system.

Perhaps children don't realise that their physical and online identities are one and the same. There is no hidden wall of privacy online, and you should be held accountable for your actions if they are damaging in any way. It is not about censorship or reducing free speech -- it is about duty of care for both other students and teachers.

Children should be taught correct online behaviour, and teachers shouldn't have to deal with that kind of disrespect online. They have enough of it every day.

Image credit: Flickr


Topic: Social Enterprise

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  • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

    Good article, but the spelling is "Principals"! better fix it quick before the trolls arrive
    • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

      I was taught: Princi"pal" is your "pal"

      Of cause it's totally BS.
      • RE: Students cyberbully...

        @day2die Oh, well, we can see you successfully managed to avoid learning much in school.

    • #YOLO
  • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

    Absolutely logical court decision: students can stand against authority, even in immature way (principles are grown ups and can take it as long as it is obvious that it's a satire), but cannot bully their fellows. The same thing as with libel: you can say most anything about "public figures" who can stand for themselves in the court of public opinion, but cannot libel ordinary people. This is all part of checks and balances around First Amendment.
    • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

      @osdm that's utterly ludicrous! How then do we expect to instill discipline in these young ones. They need to be responsible for their actions, and if that's the case can the principal's reply in the same manner?!
    • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

      @osdm We really should forgive Ms. Osborne her failure to understand a legal system that hews to our first thirteen amendments. She is, after all, a British subject and has no Bill of Rights protections. She could study ours instead of creating a blog with no less than four spelling and grammatical errors. From this, it appears that the Brits could ask their schools to spend more time teaching spelling and usage and less time supervising their students' off campus lives. (Kindly note correct use of possessive case in the preceding.)
      • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

        @nikacat Uh, that should be "no *fewer* than four" :-D Sorry, couldn't resist. One who lives in glass house...
      • Nice try, but...

        @nikacat no, it does NOT "hew to our first thirteen amendments". Consider, for example, how poorly it 'hews' (you really should look up this word) to the Second Amendment. Sure, thanks to the NRA, I can buy an AK-47, but in order to REALLY meet the spirit of the 2nd Amendment, I should be able to buy weapons-grade plutonium and weaponized anthrax, too.

        So it is actually a good thing we don't really adhere to THAT amemdment. But as for the cyberbullying, the US Supreme Court has let us down again. Children are not adults, they do NOT have adult free speech rights. Pretending that they do is very bad pedagogy, and causes them to grow up very twisted adults, who make very poor use of their adult free speech rights.
    • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

      @osdm well, I think the checks and balances' system of the US no longer works or has worked for a very long time. Defacing the name of a person in public (though a virtual world) is ridiculous and definitely immature. I am shocked that parents are suing schools for suspending such kids. Forget trying to talk it out, apologize, sort out the matter respectfully because your child made a mistake. But I am not too shocked by the news anyway. US has the history of the most ridiculous law suits in the world.
      (I am sure that many will take offense to my apparent anti-US stand, but I would still like to clarify - no matter how much you curse here, the fact doesn't change - US has had a lot of good things going for it, but in the past few decades, from an outsider's point of view, the country's going looneyville, and fast).
    • I'm not a lawyer....

      @osdm ...but I'm *pretty* sure the first amendment was not written to allow 8th graders to be this disrespectful to their school administrators or that it was written for parents to be able to sue on behalf of their supposed kids' rights. There is freedom of speech, and there is abuse of free speech. If I was in those teachers' and administrators' shoes, I would turn around, find myself a lawyer, and find myself a jury of 12 competent adults to find out just how much the law thinks those parents owe for letting their kids do these things. Open the door even a little bit, and all kinds of lousy behaviours wander in.

      Heck, it all goes back to anonymity, the thing that *really* makes the internet the free-for-all it is today. Just imagine what it's gonna look like 10, 20, 30 years from now.
      • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

        [i]@osdm ...but I'm *pretty* sure the first amendment was not written to allow 8th graders to be this disrespectful to their school administrators or that it was written for parents to be able to sue on behalf of their supposed kids' rights.[/i]

        Looks like the Supreme Court didn't agree with you.

        [i]There is freedom of speech, and there is abuse of free speech.[/i]

        Define "abuse of speech". Isn't that a [b]relative[/b] thing? One person's objection is another person's support.

        There are no absolutes in this unless you want to become a police state like North Korea or Iran. Places that even tell their people when to go to the bathroom.
      • So you would be ok with....

        @osdm... some teeny bopper making up a website devoted to smearing your name in the mud? I know the supreme court in probably more ways than most. I know that these technophobes that run the courts really have no clue just how destructive this could be to someone's future career. And why would they? They're shielded from any "influence" - they have jobs for life. They have a small army of IT people to help them click the "send" button when they want to send an email.

        Those websites could be there for weeks, months, years. Links to these websites, tweets, could take on a life of their own and easily influence others. Think about it: What if your next job depended on the google search the HR department made, and they came across a few of these, calling you a pedofile, murdered, etc. At some level I'm sure it's "funny". But at another level, it certainly is not. At some level, real damage is done to someone, and those same high-and-mighty judges that so easily dismissed these cases would be ill-pressed to come up with a monetary figure that would correctly express the losses that person experienced.

        Take it another direction: Kid vs. Kid. Should the parents be held accountable? I suspect there's plenty of poop that'll hit a lot of different fans very quickly. ... But as usual we're only going to react when something really really bad happens. Another suicide, another story of some innocent guy wrongly convicted and raped in a prison system for 20 years. Some kid OD's on paint thinner or something along those lines. And then we'll jump in with more "cyberbully" laws and "no child pushed around" laws. All that because we hold our "freedoms" more dear than our responsibilities. Freedom to do what? How about some freedom **from** some stuff for once? Do we really have to be an "op-out" society for **everything**??
    • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

      @osdm Is it your contention that teachers and principles are public figures? They are private individuals and they should sue the children's parents in court for libel. Perhaps if they did, these same parents would be signing a different tune about their children's rights. At what age do we teach our children responsibility?
      • RE: Students cyberbully...

        @fldbryan@... Ah, well, you see, that is the problem. Most parents put so much effort into ducking responsibility themselves, of course they don't teach it to their children.
    • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

      I DO NOT see where it is a 'logical' decision. ANY accusations by a student can destroy a teacher or administrators career. The parents in these cases ARE at fault. IF it was so ok to do something like this why didn't the students clear it with there parents first & use there true identities?
      • RE: Students cyberbully principles; Court throws out cases

        @Vquest55@... Hear! Hear! Well said. The parents are the problem here and now their kids are problems too. Time to stop it.
  • No love lost for

    No love lost for principals from me "paddeling was an acceptable form of discipline at the time"but he/she can sue for libel. Your free to speak your mind but if you accuse people of something ya better have proof.
  • Illogical Ruling

    Canada's Supreme Court doesn't have to and usually doesn't give reason for refusing to hear a case. How is this with the USA Supreme Court? Do/Did they give a reason?
    As per above article, the issue is only one of distance, but not substance. The principle is the very same, it can be slander or libel, if you mock your Principal by distorting truth in any public way.
    Can the principle Principals sue under your Civil Law, that appears to be a parallel system? Is this remedy available to them?
    Justice and Law are sometimes, Separated, but in this case, acrimonious Divorce.
    These kids are not alright.