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That’s The Offending Word?

Can a student be punished for language critical of school administrators posted on their personal blog? How about if the principal finds one of the words employed offensive?

In at least one case, an appeals court says they can.

The Court of Appeals noted that adults may have a constitutional right to use vulgar or offensive speech in order to make a point, but that it “may legitimately give rise to disciplinary action by a school” if a school is responsible for “teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.” Although Avery made her statements off school grounds and outside of school hours, they were related to school activities and ultimately caused some level of disruption within the school setting.

If this was a wild rant with a purpose of inciting students to violent or illegal behavior, I might agree with this ruling.

However, if you read the entry, there is none of that. It’s actually rather tame with the possible exception of that one word used to describe the administrators. A word that goes unbleeped on broadcast television.

All of which makes the court’s action somewhat disturbing.

The decision concerns free speech advocates because of the cloudy nature of the blog post. No threats were made and no major student demonstrations occurred–at most, the students were a bit “riled up” (according to Avery’s testimony) over having their event possibly cancelled and their student council going to great lengths to turn the decision around. Most importantly, the decision will likely be used as further precedent in the future for schools (and possibly colleges and universities) to take action against students for their postings around the ‘Net.

It probably won’t be long before another principal decides to take action against a student for a blog post with no “bad” words, one that simply takes exception with school policy.

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3 Comments

  1. Tim,
    Reminds me of something I posted last week:
    http://ideasandthoughts.org/2008/05/30/responding-to-potential-subversiveness/

    Common sense and rational behavior is a rare commodity sometimes.

  2. Okay, I agree that maybe the thing has been blown out of proportion since calling someone a name on a blog isn’t enough to lead to excuse someone for their role as a class secretary. However, as an administrator, I’m a little concerned that students are not being held responsible for what it is they are saying. Dean’s reference isn’t really the same since, from what I can see, those students hadn’t gone as far as to call people names or anything else.
    I agree that “With great power comes great responsibility”. So, did having great power – in this case using her blog – bring great responsibility?
    Being someone who has had great things written about me by a few students, I can understand the reaction. My reaction was to ask the students to retract the comments and delete them without making a big deal of it. I didn’t think there was much sense. In hindsight, I probably should have done something with one student which would have saved me a few headaches.

    Common sense – hmmmm – why should anyone have to put up with being called names? Don’t we tell students that those kind of actions are unacceptable. Do we just allow the whole name calling to continue? Or is this allowable because it’s a teenager who is mad? What is appropriate for publically calling someone a douchebag?
    As someone who works very hard in my role as an administrator, I’m not sure why it’s okay for the student to rant at me whenever they want with no consequences? Why is it okay for students to flip me the bird uptown whenever they want? Why is it okay for students to flip my wife the bird? How come students can write what they want – under assumed names – about what we are doing at the school? You talk about common sense – where’s the common sense in that? None of these activities are done at school or on school time so, I guess, they’re okay. My common sense says that all of this isn’t right – as an adult I would be taken so far to task for doing anything like that and, if the school official had used the word “douchebag” – what would have been the response?
    Dean’s example is different in many ways. But, I guess, until you’ve sat on the other side of the fence, you may not really understand why someone might react in such a manner. Of course I could be overreacting to these issues since, really, these are just examples of kids being kids.

  3. Kelly, the issue is whether students have the right to express themselves and have an opinion – including using unfriendly language – at home. And the U.S. courts generally have said that they do UNLESS their off-campus speech reaches back into the school enough to MATERIALLY AND SUBSTANTIALLY disrupt the school environment. It would be hard to argue that occurred in this case, and yet the student lost anyway. Watch for an appeal – I think this one’s a loser at the Supreme Court level. To uphold it would basically give schools carte blanche to regulate any and all student speech (which is going too far in my opinion as a school law professor).

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