When South Florida teenager Katherine Evans created a Facebook page in 2007 criticizing her high school senior English teacher, she just needed to vent (or so her story goes). She took the harshly-worded page down after a few days. Two months later, she was suspended for "cyberbullying" her teacher. Now, 3 years later, a judge has ruled that her lawsuit against the principal of the school is justified and can move forward.
In particular, the judge ruled that her page was protected free speech and that the principal did not qualify for any degree of immunity. According to the New York Times,
One of the lawyers, Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the judge’s decision had clearly extended the protection of First Amendment rights to online writings of a nonthreatening manner.
“This is an important victory both for Ms. Evans and Internet free speech,” Ms. Kayanan said, “because it upholds the principle that the right to freedom of speech and expression in America does not depend on the technology used to convey opinions and ideas.”
The important distinction that so many students won't draw here, however, is that Ms. Evans' speech was protected because it was non-threatening. Complaining, even vociferously, about a teacher, no matter how publicly, is one thing. How many students can draw the line between complaints and hate speech or threats? And even if an individual student were to post a well-reasoned, carefully-worded page on Facebook and invite comments from other students, how many students would have similar restraint?
Since 2007, social media have obviously become a much more integral part of our lives. Little that we do is not public. While this is clearly a reality we must face, it hardly provides students (or teachers for that matter) with carte blanche to post anything they wish online with no fear of retribution. Even for protected speech, in this new era of online presence, students need to be aware of the long-term consequences of their actions.
In general, we can say just about anything we want in this country. The First Amendment is a wonderful thing. However, future employers, peers, mentors, and others are also free to judge us for our words. How many students will remember that when they take their complaints and issues public?
This ruling is an important precedent maintaining First Amendment rights surrounding social media. However, we are responsible to put it in context for our students.