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Can Schools Discipline Students for Off-Campus Conduct That Involves On-Campus Issues?

As the popularity of social networking sites increases, so too has the number of cases in which schools have taken disciplinary action against students for off-campus speech that takes place in these online forums. David Kravets, at Wired Blog, highlights some of the recent cases where the schools' interest in protecting faculty members and maintaining order is colliding with students' First Amendment rights.

For example, there's the case of Katherine Evans, who is suing her high school. She was suspended last year after she created a Facebook group devoted to her English teacher, whom Evans referred to online as "the worst teacher I've ever met." Evans also invited other students to express their hatred for the teacher. Ultimately, the stunt backfired when commenters instead expressed support for the teacher and Evans deleted the group. Nevertheless, the school suspended Evans for three days for disruptive behavior and cyber-bullying harassment towards a staff member, and removed Evans from her honors and AP classes.

Meanwhile, the 3rd Circuit just heard argument in the case of Justin Layshock (also see How Appealing for a roundup of posts). The senior honors student was suspended for 10 days after creating a mock MySpace profile of his principal, which, among other things, said that the principal took drugs and kept beer in his desk. A lower court judge overturned the suspension, finding that the site was not created at school and it did not constitute a disruption. The school has appealed the ruling.

Cases like these don't generate much sympathy for the schools, which appear heavy handed, or in the case of Evans, downright retaliatory in their reaction. At the same time, what if the cases involved negative commentary or cyber-bullying against students rather than teachers? In those situations, many would probably applaud the school for taking an aggressive stance against bullying. I'm not sure there's a workable solution except to take schools out of the business of monitoring and disciplining off-campus communication that stays off campus. However, teaching students about legal issues -- like the point at which First Amendment rights end and defamation or harassment kick in -- might serve as a better deterrent to destructive online commentary than knee jerk discipline.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 10, 2008 at 11:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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