Why Johnny Won His Case

Johnny learns to litigateAt this point in the discussion of students' free-speech rights, the question becomes one of how far school administrators can extend their sphere of influence before running afoul of constitutional law. The right to censor student expression, while by no means absolute, is greater during school hours or where students are otherwise involved in a school-sponsored activity. Homework, for example, remains under school jurisdiction regardless of where it's executed; the fact the student is at home while completing an assignment doesn't reduce the school's interest in it. In a similar way, football teams and cheerleading squads don't automatically gain full autonomy when they travel to a neighboring campus; they represent their school regardless of physical proximity.

But when a student isn't involved in any school-sponsored activity or classwork and is at home using personal resources and a network that has no relationship to any school, it isn't appropriate—or legal for that matter—for the school administration to attempt to censor that student's expression. And yet, it appears this is exactly what some administrators have attempted to do, although not with great success. It seems school officials frequently act on the misguided notion that disagreement is forbidden, and disparaging or offensive comments made by students are nothing more than insolent behavior that deserves punishment. Because disagreement is a fundamental right under constitutional law, the courts—when the situation is escalated to that level—naturally find in favor of the student, sometimes at considerable expense to the educational institution. Assuming there's no on-campus access or distribution—or the intent to do so—off-campus expression can't be censored by school officials no matter how much they might disagree with it, according to part one of the Student Press Law Center's Student Media Guide to Internet Law.

Students, like all citizens, have strong First Amendment protection when it comes to expressing themselves off-campus. Public school officials cannot legally censor or punish a student for posting a personal homepage or weblog, publishing a Web-based "zine" or using a personal account to send e-mail outside of school from a home computer, even if the subject matter of the site is school-related or offensive. However, if the student accesses the Web site at school or urges others to do so, that activity could be treated no differently than any on-campus distribution of an independent publication.

As the final sentence above indicates, this new concept of school boundaries takes into account the ethereal properties of the new media. Unlike a traditional newspaper or book, a Web site may not be manifested in physical space, but its content can be equally disruptive to the educational environment. Perhaps more so, considering its reach and the difficulties involved in monitoring and controlling access. In fact, with the advent of personal, pocketable Web browsers, the problem may have less to do with Internet access in the classroom or library than with students carrying wireless access points in their jeans. It isn't difficult to imagine court cases that explore campus use of students' portable Web browsers versus those provided by the school; it will be interesting to see where the line is drawn when Web access occurs at school, but doesn't rely on school-provided networks or hardware to do it.

In any event, the underlying principles of law are unlikely to change, regardless of technological advances and how they affect our communication. While the schools' frustration at the unbridled—and sometimes blatantly offensive—expression of some students is understandable, it certainly isn't new. As anyone involved with middle- or high-school students can attest, the limits of convention are no barrier to youth; in fact, those limits seem specifically engineered for destruction by subsequent generations. College students may enjoy greater expressive leeway than their younger counterparts, but both are protected under first-amendment law. And while the Internet may appear to have alarmingly altered the landscape, it's really just another vehicle for the transport of free speech. As many school officials have already discovered, the disquieting fact that students' negative opinions about their teachers or other staff can now instantaneously flood the planet doesn’t justify misapplication of the law. That isn't why Johnny goes to school.


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