Online teacher 'hate' is free speech

A Facebook page called “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!,” was free speech, a federal court ruled last week.  Katherine Evans, now a 20-year-old journalism student, was suspended two years ago for “cyberbullying” her English teacher, reports Wired.

“It was an opinion of a student about a teacher, that was published off-campus, did not cause any disruption on-campus, and was not lewd, vulgar, threatening, or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior,” Magistrate Barry Garber of Florida ruled Friday.

The group featured a photograph of the teacher and an invitation for other students to “express your feelings of hatred.” Evans took it down after a few days.

Recently, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals split on two student free speech cases, Wired notes. Both involved students who created fake MySpace profiles of their principal.

The court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania high school boy who claimed the principal took drugs and kept beer in his desk. The court ruled the profile, created off campus, did not disrupt the school.

But the same court ruled against a Pennsylvania junior high girl who suggested the principal was a sex addict and pedophile. The court said that was disruptive.

It’s a fine line — or no line at all.

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  1. The internet is a new arena for constitutional law and education policy. Because of this the courts have to be careful so as not to set precedents of regulating the entire internet- the greatest vehicle for free speech the world has ever seen.

    These seem like two very different cases. In the case where a student posted a site saying how much she hated her teacher, it doesn’t strike me as anything new. Students have been saying they hate their teachers forever. This is just another way for them to express that opinion. The student causing disruption in class by bringing up the webpage is the one who should be punished, and if there are repeat offenses of disrupting the educational process perhaps it is grounds for suspension.

    As for creating sites with false accusations about alcohol or sexual abuse or creating a fake page impersonating a school official, these are more serious offenses. Teachers are fired for as little as having pictures of themselves drinking posted to their facebook or myspace pages. Any accusation of or impersonating someone to make others believe he or she is guilty of major abuse is not/should not be taken lightly. Teachers aren’t generally fired because a student says they hate them, but false accusations can be far more damaging.

  2. OK – does that mean I can criticize students on Facebook?

  3. No, Frank, because you are an adult and a PROFESSIONAL, and it would be beneath you.

  4. Very well said Nick.

    @Frank – Depends on the specificity and the degree. Students don’t have an obligation to act professionally but teachers do.

  5. No, somebody in North Carolina was just suspended for that.

    I have a feeling Ms. Evans might have a hard time finding a journalism job, though. Who here wants to be her boss?

    I don’t know what the line is between students slandering us and the rest of society. I mean, if it is fine for our elected officials to say we’re idiots, what difference does it make if students say it, too?

  6. ” the courts have to be careful so as not to set precedents of regulating the entire internet- the greatest vehicle for free speech the world has ever seen.”

    Our society is trying to figure out the etiquette governing internet speech. That doesn’t mean it won’t eventually be regulated. You can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theater without cause, for example, and you can’t slander someone.

    The fake Myspace pages would seem to be cases of identity theft,and/or slander. The offenders should be prosecuted. Access to a computer does not give you license to destroy another’s reputation. Truth is an absolute defense, but I doubt these students were trying to do anything other than stir up trouble.

    The Facebook page may be free speech, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be consequences. Society has to find some consequences which make it worth students’ while to behave appropriately, with respect for others.

    If the courts say one can’t suspend a student for cyberbullying a teacher or fellow student, then… Well, the only thing I can think of is, it should become part of the records the school releases to any college or employer. If truth is an absolute defense, then this is pertinent to any inquiry about a student’s moral character.

    If nothing else, it might move ambitious parents to pay some attention to their children’s behavior online.

  7. Darren just had a post on this same thing.

    I think that there is a fine line here. I see the differences in the two case involving the principals as well. However, if we teachers can be fired for having pictures online or criticizing students/parents then there should be some punishment for the students.

    I understand the whole we are professionals thing, but are we now on the job 24/7?

    Personally, I posted a story about a freshman girl who was caught on campus with alcohol and drunk, she was suspended for 5 days. I wrote about her and she came up to me about 2 weeks later and confronted me about it. I said I didn’t use her name and it ended there. I am more careful now to hold all my complaints until the end of the year. Even then…am I safe?

  8. I think the rule of thumb ought to be quite clear –if the internet speech is posted from off campus, would it be the sort of thing that the school would have the power to punish or otherwise intervene in if it were verbal?

    Would a student be punished for sitting around on a Saturday night at a party saying that her English teacher was a b*tch and encouraging othrs to join in her rant? Certainly not! So the same rule ought to apply here.

  9. zzby the way, cranberry, to argue that this post constituted “cyberbullying” is ludicrous. And to punish a student by removing him/her from AP classes is a violation of the very policy that allows for the offering of AP classes.

  10. While I don’t generally say to myself that what we really need are a whole bunch more lawsuits, I do think that individual teachers suing students and/or their parents is the way to address these cases.

    (Do any lawyers know the answer to the following questions though: how responsible can a minor be held for damaging the reputation of another person? Can a parent be held responsible for the damage the minor child does?)

    It doesn’t make that much sense, in cases where there was likely little to no disruption of school as a result of the online speech, for the school to try to regulate the speech.

    (In events with high school age students, I also think that teachers should consider bringing criminal charges in cases when they apply rather than relying on school consequences to address behavior that in any other setting would be criminal; threats, etc. Too often it seems that the schools are trying to handle issues way beyond their scope and are doing it really poorly.)

  11. What does “zzby” mean?

    Yes, it was an attempt to intimidate the teacher by publicly criticizing her teaching. Now, mind you, I live in a state which has just had a 15 year old commit suicide after relentless cyberbullying. I think our state will pass a law covering this in the next year or so, and then we’ll see what happens in the courts.

    It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court decides, once they accept a case covering internet speech’s effect on school. Does such behavior “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school?” I can’t see how it wouldn’t. Now, if she set her page to “only friends,” it might be analogous to friends grousing around a table.

    I was not advocating suspension. Reporting behavior to colleges is not suspension. I would prefer it to requiring teachers to file defamation suits against immature students, though.

  12. Actually, Rhymes, that has happened to me. The student was called in for a conference with parent, who thought the behavior was just fine (including the underage drinking, I suppose). The kid was removed from my AP class (the only one offered); after all, she couldn’t learn from me as she herself said. Her consequence naturally followed the behavior. Neither parent nor child was happy about it, but they couldn’t argue it.

    I’m sure the kids say all kinds of things about me on Facebook — especially the night before a paper is due.

  13. I would like to add that students already have a place to blast every teacher in America… They can post whatever they want, but it is anonymous.

  14. So let’s see if I have this straight. We compel students, under threat of law, to attend school, and then we tell them that any online speech regarding school is not protected by the First Amendment. Is such an anti-liberty system designed to teach them to be citizens of a democratic republic, or subjects of some sort of totalitarian government?

  15. “any online speech regarding school is not protected by the First Amendment.”

    Any defamatory online speech intended to harm others’ reputation, or injure, or harass others, sure. If they want to chat about the latest assignments, or write humorous pieces about campus happenings, or challenge administrative policies, that’s not a problem. Turning to Wikipedia, in a pinch,

    “Defamation per se
    The four (4) categories of slander that are actionable per se are (i) accusing someone of a crime; (ii) alleging that someone has a foul or loathsome disease; (iii) adversely reflecting on a person’s fitness to conduct their business or trade; and (iv) imputing serious sexual misconduct. Here again, the plaintiff need only prove that someone had published the statement to any third party. No proof of special damages is required.”

    “Is such an anti-liberty system designed to teach them to be citizens of a democratic republic, or subjects of some sort of totalitarian government?”

    It’s intended to teach them to be responsible adults, and to think before they libel others. Adults who won’t tie up the courts with lawsuits caused by irresponsible behaviors.

  16. We should welcome feedback from students–however negative, provided it is about what we do in the classroom. In inner-city L.A., students aren’t afraid to tell say they think the lesson is boring or that the teacher isn’t making sense or not treating everyone fairly. Sometimes they’re just whining but sometimes they’re right.

    One of the guys I coach on the basketball team told me, during a bus ride, how much he hated my AP class last year and how relieved he was that he got out. I argued with him about the value of what I teach in that class and about his responsibility to make the effort to do difficult work but I also listened to a student who was overwhelmed and probably could have used a little more attention.

    When I started teaching back in the 90’s, I remember hearing about and even seeing teachers literally run out of the classroom by disgruntled students. It was ugly in some cases and hard not to feel bad for some of those teachers but since then I’ve seen teachers who probably should be run out of the classroom and I feel bad for the kids.

  17. Goodness Rhymes with Right! Calm down! Easy on the hyperbole. Students are minors, and as such their rights are more limited than that of adults (i.e. voting, drinking, smoking, curfew laws, labor restrictions, and so on). Most people know that. Your post wasn’t serious, was it? By the way, I love how you used the word “compel,” as if being able to get a free K-12 education was some sort of burden.

  18. Call me a Confucianist, but, unless the teacher is a bona fide reprobate, I don’t think it’s OK for a student to tell a teacher he hates his class. That’s called bad manners. And I don’t want to live in a society where that kind of behavior is accepted.

  19. As an attorney (actually still in law school), a quick review for Cranberry, Ben F and Swede

    1. Curfew – Most states have had the courts disallow curfew laws.
    2. Cranberry – Never ever trust Wikipedia, “adversely reflecting on a person’s fitness to conduct their business or trade” – A person can write, scream from the corners that XXX is the worst teacher/manager/anything, causing them to lose their business and there is nothing anyone can do unless it is implied that they are they are the worst for doing something or being something they are not. The reason for this is in the first instance it is subjective.
    3. And over the last 30 years, students and minors have have more rights than most people realize. The limited rights have been slowly falling away.

  20. tim-10-ber says:

    It would be great if the students would tell why they do not like the teacher — one good way to get feedback….

    In my city a very good student at a top 30 US High School posted his feelings about, and threats towards, his basketball coach on face book. This got his kicked out of school with one semester to go.

    What the student did was very wrong. Was the school’s action justified? Probably not if one really knew his coach. However, because of the words used, everyone at the school said they felt unsafe.

    This is a good kid…one I know personally. Sadly, this will probably haunt him his whole life…

  21. There’s a difference between what’s “legal” and “right” versus what’s “legal”. As far as free speech goes, I don’t see why I should be held to a higher *legal* standard than a child.

  22. Gotta disagree with you, Cranberry.


    And given that the speech in question, if truly defamatory, would constitute a violation of civil law, the proper response to any actual defamation (as opposed to wimpy teachers whose feelings are hurt by criticism) is to have the teacher file a lawsuit against the kid and his/her parents, not have the school punish the kid.

    And as for this situation, it appears to me that the proper action is to terminate both the teacher (who apparently can’t handle the criticism that goes with her job) and the administrator (whose fascist actions make him unfit for his job).

  23. Swede, my comments are serious as a heart attack.

    And if you truly believe that schools can intrude upon the First Amendment rights of students outside of school, then you surely would have no objection to the principal meting out punishment to kids who skipped church on Sunday or pray to the wrong God. After all, they have limited First Amendment rights and the school has to teach them what’s right.

  24. There should be rights that protect teachers and businesses in general from random internet posts. It is unfair that educators in particular have to be popular with students, in most societies it is recognized that a “Mean teacher is often the best” we all know who the popular teachers are in a school and often those are the ones that teach the least and are most involved with student gossip and to me are just creepy.

    What would Daniel have posted about Mr. Miyagi when he made him paint the fence?? THis is why American education is in the dumps. Students should severely penalized for disrespect towards teachers.


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