Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Student Suspended for Creating Facebook Group...

A new lawsuit has been filed in Florida federal court where a high school student, Katherine Evans, is challenging whether her school can rightfully suspend her over her activities on Facebook. Basically, Evans created a Facebook group called "Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I've ever met!," and invited fellow students to share their feelings as well. Pembroke Pines Charter High School suspended Evans for three days for "disruptive behavior" and for "bullying/cyberbullying harassment towards a staff member".

The real question is to what extent schools can punish students for their online behavior when it occurs completely off-campus and using only privatized, commercial web services. Where do school jurisdictions end and where does free speech begin?

The courts are grappling with defining this fine line. In the past, student speech cases usually involved student newspapers and dress codes. With the internet, however, there is a new tidal wave of lawsuits being brought concerning students' activities in private, rather than public, spaces.

As David Kravets describes, there is a growing list of cases tackling this problem:

A Texas high school volleyball coach in September went so far as to declare a ban on student Facebook and MySpace profiles, a decision the Northside Independent School District reversed. Last month, Tennessee State University blocked the online gossip site JuicyCampus at the school firewall. In June, Missouri enacted a law against "cyberbullying" in the wake of the Megan Meier suicide tragedy, which was triggered by a hoax MySpace account.

Common sense would dictate that any student speech advocating threats, violence, or physical harm of any kind ought to be suppressed, and schools would be fully within their rights to do so. However, none of that was the case here. All Evans did was simply create a forum for expressing displeasure. That alone makes the school's punishment seem egregious. Throw into that the fact that the group was created off-campus using Facebook - a private commercial website - and the school's argument for the suspension stands on even shakier ground.

As an educator myself, I fully appreciate the need to prevent cyberbullying and online defamation. Schools should be implementing policies making clear to students what type of internet activity is and is not permitted on school computers and using other school resources (like hosting pages on their web servers). Many types of truly harmful activities simply cannot be permitted, like cyberbullying, regardless of the venue.

That said, a school's jurisdiction over their students must end at some point, and the private sphere seems the most logical venue. If activity on Facebook can lead to punishment, then what's to say that schools cannot similarly suspend students for the content of their emails, the videos they post on YouTube, the music they download at home, the edits they make on Wikipedia, or the comments they leave on blogs? Why not just prevent them from experiencing cyberspace completely until they're 18?

As much as I'd hate for my own students to start a Facebook group bashing my teaching skills, I'm pretty much accepting of the fact that, assuming it is not threatening, injurious, or defamatory in any way, there's nothing I can really do about it. While I'm not too thrilled at that prospect, I also understand the inherent dangers in overreaching my authority (or my school's authority) in punishing individuals for what they do in the private sphere.

This is just the digital world that we live in; and we simply have to take the good with the bad. The alternative - barring perfectly legal participation in cyberspatial activities - would only do irreparable damage to our students' interests in a modern, globalized world.


At 7:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"A well-written post, with accurate views. Thank god there are still people with common sense in the world."

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the points you made in so far as that the school seemed to overextend their jurisdiction into the private sector. However, defamation may be occurring within the Facebook group, and that would be a problem. To determine that it would require further investigation.

More importantly though, people (especially children) need to begin realizing that there will be consequences for their actions on publicly accessible websites such as Facebook. We can debate the merits of school suspension, etc. but I'm talking about more serious consequences down the road. The internet is forever and 10 years from now when this person goes to look for a job, her employer will know that she started a Facebook group slamming her teacher. Employers don't necessarily like activist employees.

Instances become more serious when they involve drugs, sex and alcohol - people post these pictures without thinking ahead. By no means do I support censoring these activities - that's just ridiculous. But people need to put their Facebook postings into more serious context and in the case of a child, I suppose it's the parents' responsibility to convey that message.

This girl was "lucky" to be suspended b/c now she is probably wiser for it. Should she have been? Probably not. But maybe a few others will take notice and realize that social networks can endanger one's own reputation.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

Jon - Thanks for the comment. A few reactions to your points...

1) Regarding whether defamation occurred - Like I said, all bets are off if statements are made in threatening, injurious, or defamatory ways. However, even if someone in the group posted a defamatory message, the proper venue for redress is through the law and in the courts. It is not the proper place for a high school to issue punishments that occur solely in the private sphere. It would be like a teenager getting caught for shoplifting at the mall, and instead of being arrested, the local high school decided to lower the kid's G.P.A.

2) Regarding the internet's being "forever" and that future employers "don't necessarily like activist employees" - I definitely share your concern over the digital trail being archived about each of us that will be so easily accessible for an indefinite number of years. However, because this problem is so prevalent and is shared by literally everyone who's ever been online, I don't see it getting in the way of future employment except in extreme cases. A cultural shift is already emerging where, as everybody shares these digital trails, everybody also is more accepting of the fact that some unfortunate material may get out there for all to see. In other words, a greater tolerance for the embarrassing YouTube video is already developing, and its precisely because we're all in the same boat. This type of cultural shift occurs almost every generation... after all, how much was Bill Clinton or George W. Bush hurt politically when word got out that they had taken illegal drugs during the 1960s?

3) Regarding your main point on how "social networks can endanger one's own reputation" - While this is certainly true, so are a thousand other things that kids do on a daily basis. Reputation, both online and off, is cultivated gradually over time, and in the end, especially on issues of substance, it is usually the larger body of work, or the sum total of all of the parts, that defines one's reputation. All we can ever hope for is that people won't be so ignorant as to judge us based on a single photo, statement, or occurrence. And that as true in the real world as it is in cyberspace.

AND, there's a terrific book on the subject if you're looking for in-depth analysis that also doubles as good subway reading... "The Future of Reputation" by Daniel J. Solove.


At 10:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob - all very good points and I'm very curious to see how the next generation is judged based on its digital paper trail. You very well may be correct in assuming that these instances are so prevalent that they will basically become irrelevant in judging people's competencies, personalities, etc.

That said, I don't take any chances and prefer to protect myself at all times with a fairly sterile Facebook page and anonymous blog posts/responses when it comes to social and political issues. After all, I have a business to run and not turning off my customers still takes top priority, even if that makes me a bit of a sell-out ;-)

Keep writing - I enjoy the blog.

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being an educator I think one important issue was not addressed. The facebook forum created about the teacher was disruptive to learning in the high school. I understand privacy, but that issue becomes mute when it affects the educational institution. There is not need for such a forum except to berate or write defamatory remarks about the teacher. One lie on a forum could affect a teacher for their career. I remember their rumor in 8th grade about our French teacher posing for playboy. The rumor was ten years old but still circulated among the students. I know it’s hard but when you, as adults, discuss issues about children you must remember they are CHILDREN and need guidance at all time. Guidance not control, so don't freak out over that statement. High school students are self absorbed and insecure who live in a tiny bubble. They often do not realize their actions have consequences. Also unless you are an educator in public schools it’s really hard to remember what that time in your life was like. Remember adolescence is the HARDEST time in your life. Don’t come back with arguments about death, war and trauma as an adult being harder. As an adult your brain and body is mature and rationale, somewhat anyway. In high school you go through hundreds of moments of trauma and circumstances without the maturity or experience to understand and cope with the situation.
The town I live in last year suspended three students for bullying a kid outside the high school. These three kids were teabagging a student on their way home from school. The parents fought but were defeated in court. I wish I could find the article online. I do remember the courts saying something like “It is the educational institute’s responsibility to create a positive learning atmosphere and activities that affect this atmosphere inside or outside of school maybe considered for disciplinary actions by the institution.”
What if your kid was constantly bullied out of school, everyday walking to and from home he was harassed, the mall, movies, everywhere but school. The bully’s figured out that as long as they did it after school nothing would happen. You tried the law but it took two years before a restraining order was setup. By then the emotional damage was done and the victim committed suicide three months later. So what do you think happened next? That’s right the parent’s of the victim sued the school district and won millions and millions of dollars. The laws were adjusted and are vague now; leaving the door open for schools to impose disciplinary actions for activities outside of school just like the law is vague about hitting a student. “You may use and apply such amounts of force as is reasonable and necessary to quell a disturbance, threatening physical injury to others; obtain possession of a weapon or dangerous object, self defense, for the protection of persons or property. So “You can’t touch students anymore” is completely untrue, and if you ever hear a teacher say that it’s just one more excuse for them not to care or not to teach. A kid was carving into a desk with the tip of an expensive pen (metal). He refused to give me the pen so I grabbed his wrist, twisted and removed the pen. He left the room and called his parents who were immediately at the school. Fortunately, my administrative staff new the laws and after talking with me and some other students I never had to waste my team in meetings with the parents.
One last note, most public and private schools have the students sign a contract stating their obligations inside and outside the school in order to be a part of the student body.
One last thought, I love how the post-baby boomer generation neglects and abandons their kids for monetary purposes and expect the government(public school) to raise them right; however the first minute their kid does something wrong and requires discipline, the parents want to decide what is right.

P.S. The rebuttal remark "It would be like a teenager getting caught for shoplifting .....high school decided to lower the kid's G.P.A." is ludicrous and without merit.

At 9:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rebuttal to: "Reputation, both online and off, is cultivated gradually over time...".
Are you kidding me, an online rep can be destroyed in seconds. For example "LET'S SAY" I am known as a geek and in numerous forums about high tech gadgets. We often discuss our social lives and how hard it is to relate with people who are not geeks. A picture is posted of me riding a Harley at a biker convention. That one picture ruined my rep as a geek and got me banned from forums. Offline it would have taken months for word to travel and I would have time for damage control, and mention that I was paid $100 to be an extra in "Angel Boys" a movie about bikers. But now that thousands of people have seen this pic online I will never squash the rumor and have to start a new online identity.


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