We all know that kids are careless with their online doings, paying little attention to privacy, safety, long-term job prospects, copyright infringement, etc. Now, a US District judge has ruled that kids can be specifically disciplined within school for certain online behaviors off school grounds.
Ars Technica is featuring coverage of a case in Pennsylvania in which two eighth-graders created a fake MySpace profile for their middle school principal (please note, the article linked above contains offensive language). The profile painted the principal as a "pedophile and sex addict". According to the article,
The two students who created the profile did so at home on one of their parents' computers, and according to court documents, a fair number of other students were already talking about the profile at school the next day. The students behind the profile, referred to as J.S. and K.L., claimed they set the profile to private that day, but McGonigle himself was still able to access it from a public computer days later.
When the students were suspended for their actions, one parent, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, elected to sue the school district for violation of free speech. While the MySpace profile was patently offensive and certainly mean-spirited, the lawsuit alleged that actions outside of school were protected. The suit also pointed to the landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case, in which students' black arm bands, worn on school grounds, were protected free speech.
However, because the MySpace profile was strictly "lewd and offensive" rather than political in nature, the judge ruled that it was not protected speech. One of the tenets of Tinker v. Des Moines was also that the speech was not disruptive to the learning environment. Because so many students at the school were aware of the profile and talked about frequently throughout the school day, this particular criterion was also not met.
As much as I'm an advocate of First Amendment rights, it's time that young people became aware that the things they do online can translate to real-life consequences. There is no anonymity any longer and it's no secret that many employers check involvement with social networking sites as part of their screening process.