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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Can schools police social media? Should they?

A California girl was suspended from the basketball team for retweeting Snoop Dogg holding what appears to be a marijuana joint, reports the Fresno Bee. Sierra High senior Racquel Alec is suing, charging harassment and violation of her free-speech rights.

The Sierra Unified district said that the student’s tweets had violated a policy that forbids students from “engaging in inappropriate sexual and drug propaganda,” reports the Bee. “But her attorney contends that the posts are not a punishable offense: they did not threaten anyone on campus; were made from a private account that only those who requested to be her friend could see, and were not posted using school computers.”

The complaint also charges the former basketball coach Cathy Lauritzen, now assistant principal, with asking another student to help her access Alec’s private accounts “with the intent of invading her privacy to humiliate, embarrass, harass and ridicule” her.

When a student posts offensive messages on social media, what can a school do? asks Joshua Dunn, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado–Colorado Springs, on Education Next. What should the school do?

“Off-campus cyber-speech” hasn’t made it to the U.S. Supreme Court yet, but a Pennsylvania case illustrates the issues, writes Dunn.

“In B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District, a high school sophomore was kicked off the junior-varsity cheerleading squad for a vulgar image she sent on the weekend.

The squad rules stated that cheerleaders were “representing” their school “at games, fundraisers, and other events. Good sportsmanship will be enforced, this includes foul language and inappropriate gestures. . . . There will be no toleration of any negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches placed on the internet.” However, in May 2017, B.L. shared a Snap of herself and a friend holding up their middle fingers, with the words “f— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything” superimposed on the image.

So far, the student has prevailed in court, writes Dunn, but “it’s time for the Supreme Court” to resolve conflicts dividing lower federal courts. “Some district administrators fear schools could be held liable for not regulating off-campus speech if, say, online bullying should culminate in violence.”

True threats should be reported to the police, he conclude. “But schools are not community hall monitors, and the Constitution requires the protection of First Amendment rights, even when they are exercised by young people of questionable judgment.”

Off-campus, online vulgarity and profanity seems easy to me. Ignore it. Cyber-bullying is harder because where is the line crossed?

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