Do school officials have the right to punish students for postings they make online from their home computers? Whether they have the right or not, they are doing it, especially for posts students make on their Facebook accounts.
The Nashville Tennessean newspaper reported yesterday that administrators had expelled a student at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Nashville earlier this month. The student, who made the post from his home computer, typed his frustrations concerning a coach he’d had problems with at school. “I’ma kill em all,” the student said. “I’m a bust this (expletive} up from the inside like nobody’s ever done before.” The Tennessean reported the student said the threat wasn’t real, but school officials said they couldn’t take any chances.
This case is similar to others across the nation where administrators have disciplined students for their online comments even though the comments were made off school grounds.
The Tennessean said school officials have become sensitive to cyber-threats since a Missouri teenager committed suicide in 2006 supposedly because of online harassment.
This is not the only case where school administrators have taken action against students for online postings. According to the Tennessean, officials suspended a seventh grader in Syracuse, NY, this month for what they considered “inappropriate and libelous” material against a teacher.
The Nashville student was just one semester away from graduating. He claims the posts were taken out of context and that he never intended to hurt anyone. He also has written a letter of apology to his coach. The student and his family appealed the suspension, but they lost. His parents are home schooling him for the rest of the year.
“Online speech is hazy,” David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, told the Tennessean. Hudson said the Supreme Court has yet to decide a case on the matter. School officials, he said, have to determine if a threat like this one is true or whether the speech would cause a substantial disruption to school activities.
“True threats,” Hudson said, “are not protected by the First Amendment, so you have to determine whether it is a true threat or whether there was another meaning.”
In Nashville schools, officials have banned social networking sites like Facebook,. However, the Tennessean said students often consider their online lives at home completely separate from the school’s code of conduct and that a Facebook posting is no more public than a phone conversation with friends. Who’s right?