Free Speech in School, and Out

Free SpeechThe other day, a friend sent me a link to a USA Today article titled Students, officials locking horns over blogs. According to the article, school administrators are less than thrilled about students "blogging and chatting on social networking websites" such as MySpace and Facebook, and although access to such sites is frequently blocked on school computers, "school districts now are reaching into students' home computers, severely punishing and even expelling students for what they write on those sites from home."

Huh? Reaching into students' home computers? Unless I woke up in some kind of bizarre parallel universe this morning, students don't automatically shed their constitutional rights when they walk through the doors of their schools, much less their own homes. Short of libel, overt threats, criminal activity or inciting a riot—and it seems the latter three, at least, would be more likely to result in law-enforcement intervention—it's difficult to imagine a scenario that would allow school officials to punish a student for comments made in the decidedly public sphere of the Internet. There were a few examples in the article: sexual comments about a teacher, criticism aimed at yet another, and disparaging remarks made by a cheerleader, about cheerleaders. The article's author suggests that such situations are only recently finding their way into the legal arena.

The issue has created a free-speech debate between school administrators who are worried about the disruption of the learning process on one hand; and students, parents and First Amendment advocates who are worried about whether overzealous school boards are overstepping their bounds on the other. The debate is beginning to be explored in courts.

I have a different idea. I don't think there's anything new about this debate at all; it's been going on ever since the first disagreement between students and school officials over what's allowable in the school newspaper. Really, it's been going on as long as there have been people with differing points of view and the desire to express them, but students in particular seem to have a knack for expression that isn't necessarily welcome in the education community. The public-education community, to be specific, since the rules are quite different for private institutions.

What's new is the transport mechanism, but that's all. The communication vehicle of old required paper, and relied on time-consuming manual processes to publish and distribute the views of its contributors. The new vehicle requires only a computer and an Internet connection for virtually instantaneous publication on a global scale. While there's obvious debate concerning the impact of the new media on first-amendment rights, the courts—when the debate reaches that level—consistently rule in favor of free speech, regardless of the medium used to convey that speech, and also largely aside from the relative age of the speaker. In other words, the medium and the message exist separately; one doesn't determine, nor undermine, the validity of the other. To quote from part one of the Student Press Law Center's Student Media Guide to Internet Law, the apparatus is revolutionary, but its function is not.

Even the Supreme Court has indicated that the Internet should be viewed, at least legally, as simply another means to get a message to an intended audience. While the apparatus is certainly quite revolutionary, its function is not; the age-old practice of storytelling is no less valuable just because there is greater access to the underlying information.

With this in mind, the debate begins to take on the familiar appearance of the truth versus the powers that be struggles throughout history. In the context of student versus school, especially, these issues aren't new. There's sufficient legal precedent to predict, with some certainty, the outcome of most of these cases. In fact, most seem to be won by the students—with help from the ACLU or other first-amendment-protection groups—which says something about the misguided policies of the school systems involved. Perhaps most disturbing is the idea that these students seem to know more about constitutional principles than those who are paid to teach them.

There are a number of interesting reasons for the students' court victories, and also for their occasional losses. Beneath all the legal language lie a few basic ideas that are really just common sense in action, but tomorrow is another day, and, we hope, another post on this subject.


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