Cyberbullying or free speech?

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear three cases involving students suspended for malicious online comments.

School boards and principals had hoped for guidance on the clash between free speech and civility, reports the LA Times.

A middle school principal in northeastern Pennsylvania was shocked to see his photo online along with a description of him as a “hairy sex addict” and a “pervert” who liked “hitting on students” in his office.

A high school principal north of Pittsburgh saw a MySpace profile of himself that called him a “big fag,” a “whore” and a drug user.

And in West Virginia, a school principal found out that a girl had created an online site to maliciously mock another girl as a “slut” with herpes.

All three students were suspended and filed suit, claiming their free speech rights had been abridged. The two students who charged their principals with misconduct won in the lower courts. The girl who mocked a classmate lost.

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  1. Michael Lopez wrote a thoughtful commentary about this issue very recently: Only (in brief), he focuses on the line between expressing threats and free speech.

    It seems that in this case, there’s a line between free speech and defamation (or libel) that these students seem to be crossing.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    So if you’re a principal, and a student says something awful about you — the remedy is to sue for defamation. Although always be careful about this… remember that truth is a defense to an action for defamation, and that the student in question will get some (perhaps limited) discovery on the issue.

    What you shouldn’t be able to do as a moral matter (and what it more or less looks like from these cases you can’t do as a legal matter) is engage in self-help by using your position’s power to exercise revenge on the student.

    Defending your students against these sorts of things, however, and creating a “safe” (i.e., non-disrupted) learning environment seems to be OK. Personally I’m of the mind that it’s still overreaching. But I also disagree with the Courts’ limitation of students’ 4th Amendment rights, and it’s not like the Courts call me up to ask me what I think should happen in these cases.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Also — if Edweek is to be believed ( ) — the Supremes aren’t going to get involved in this, after all.

    I’m too lazy to check the docket, but presumably they’ve gotten it right.

  4. Excuse my vague gesturing. Great clarification, Michael 🙂

  5. And this would make a great civics lesson, says the social studies teacher.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    In a sane world, we’d have this thing called “parenting” where by the principal or parents of the insulted child would speak to the offender and his/her parents. The parents would then discipline their own child appropriately because they would be ashamed of the vulgar and awful behavior of their progeny.

    So, the lesson is in the absence of shame, familiar responsibility, and interpersonal relatedness – SUE.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Actually, were I teaching principles, the lesson would be, “For God’s sake, man (or lady), it’s a 17 year old kid. Who f***ing cares what they say about you? What are you, twelve? Get over it.”

      Alas, it might be too much to expect of adults in this day and age that they keep their egos insulated from the reckless cruelty of youth.

      So, failing maturity… yeah. Sue.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Uh, God. I can’t believe I did that.

        Let’s just pretend I forgot a few words, and that what I meant to write was “were I teaching principles to principals.”

      • In today’s age of online background checks and “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality regarding inappropriate relationships, don’t you think a little more is needed than just a tough skin?

  7. How things have changed in 30 years of not attending public school. In my day, you were under the school’s jurisdiction from the time you stepped on campus until the time you left it (or when taking the bus to and from school). We had underground newspapers, and made fun of our teachers, and all attempts to try to ‘legislate’ our behavior were met by lawyers who understood the principles of speech and what persons could do on their own time.

    Here is an example, lets assume a student finishes the school year and is on summer vacation, who in their right minds would say that the school has any legal authority over the student (in reality, they have none)? While freedom of speech isn’t absolute, I suspect our courts have completely lost the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ (things have been going downhill ever since the Tinker decision).

  8. In the same sense that I have seen districts handle felony arson and assault using the same disciplinary code as for skipping class in order to avoid bad press, I wonder if these principals were advised to do the same to avoid the press a civil lawsuit against a student would bring.