Internet pushes schools to confront First Amendment issues

Challenging questions: Is what kids say on MySpace schools' business? What if its harmful to fellow students or teachers? What if it's done on their own computers and their own time?
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

The rise of Internet usage in schools has raised some new freedom-of-speech issues that school boards across the country are just beginning to address, reports USA Today.

As kids spend more of their free time blogging on the Internet, opinions that once might have stayed on the playground, end up being broadcast throughout school. In order to curtail malicious gossip, many administrations have blocked MySpace and Facebook on school computers.

First Amendment advocates are worried about whether overzealous school boards are overstepping their bounds, and the issues sometimes end up in court.

"Some courts have said that speech which is done on school computers is clearly within the domain of the administration to set reasonable standards for. Some have said if it's off-site, then the students are fully protected. Some have said if it can be read by people on the school premises, then it comes within the jurisdiction of the school board," says Tom Clarke, a San Francisco attorney who works on First Amendment questions. "Those are the three crazy standards that currently exist."

Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, thinks that students should be punished for posting admissions of illegal activity — such as high-schoolers who post pictures of themselves drinking, doing drugs or committing other criminal acts. He also agrees that racist remarks or postings that promote or predict violence should be punished.

But students who are just griping about teachers is another thing entirely.

"Most of what we're seeing is not threatening speech. It's offensive speech — it's crude, it's juvenile, it's profane," Walczak says. "I actually think both students and officials need to learn a lesson from all this."
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