When a cheerleader in West Virginia created a Web page suggesting a fellow student had herpes and invited 100 classmates to comment, a federal appeals court ruled she had far exceeded her First Amendment rights.
She deserved to be suspended for 10 days and stripped of her duties as the school's reigning “Queen of Charm,” it ruled.
However, when a Pennsylvania teen created a bogus Internet profile of his principal, listing the administrator's interests as transgender, alcoholic beverages and steroids, a different federal appeals court sided with the student. The school district, it ruled, had trampled on the senior's constitutional rights when it suspended him and barred him from graduation ceremonies.
The two cases highlight the difficulty school officials face in the digital age when they try to determine whether to mete out punishment to students, such as the two Santaluces High School students who posted a racist video on YouTube this week.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court hasn't been willing to step into the confounding fray, said Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association.
The standard used to be what happened inside the “schoolhouse gate” and what kind of disruption it caused. However, the advent of the Internet has blurred traditional lines, he said.
With Facebook and YouTube and Twitter, not to mention the ability to send out doctored photos of the class nerd via cellphone, communication that occurs far outside the schoolhouse gate now has the potential to wreak havoc in schools, Negron said.
In an August newsletter to Palm Beach County school administrators, district attorney Bruce Harris described the dilemma posed by the conflicting opinions. Pointing out that the courts upheld the West Virginia girl's punishment because her off-campus Internet posts disrupted the school while the Pennsylvania boy's didn't, he suggested that school administrators tread carefully.
“Due to the split among the courts, it is recommended that a school not discipline a student for off-campus speech which does not occur at a school-related activity, unless the school determines that the speech caused a substantial disruption to the school or the school could reasonably forecast substantial disruption,” he said. “If the school learns of this speech, however, it could and should take other action such as notifying the parents.”
First Amendment attorneys, civil libertarians and human rights activists said school officials should heed that advice as they mull whether to punish the Santaluces students, who taped themselves on a home computer as they made fun of black students and then posted their ramblings on the Internet.
Lia Gaines, head of the Palm Beach County branch of the NAACP, said she doesn't want school officials to punish the girls. What is needed, she said, is education.
“Without the training, I don't think they would understand the significance of the punishment,” she said.
Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said the school has no authority to punish the girls. Besides, he said, it isn't necessary to teach them a lesson.
“The international humiliation the two teens will suffer for their childish behavior should be punishment enough,” he said. “Hopefully, the school district will be smart enough not to fall into the trap of making them First Amendment martyrs.”
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Racist video gives school a digital dilemma