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?
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.