For any high school or university student who “Facebooks” (apparently now a verb), a recent decision by a federal magistrate in Florida should come as welcome news. The magistrate’s February 12th ruling supported the right of a student to post an entry on Facebook critical of her English teacher. The Facebook entry, posted by then-senior Katherine Evans in November 2007, contained nothing obscene or inapproriate, nor did it counsel violence or any other improper act; it simply vented Ms. Evans’ frustration that the teacher, Sarah Phelps, was “the worst teacher” she’d ever had.
For having the audacity to post such an opinion on her own — not the school’s — Facebook page, Ms. Evans was suspended and moved from her advanced placement English class into another, less-weighted class. The specific reasons for these disciplinary actions included “cyberbullying,” “harassment,” and “disruptive behavior.” That’s right. A student who criticizes a teacher on her own computer and on her own time (not while in school), was deemed by Pembroke Pines Charter High School to be engaged in “cyberbullying” against an adult teacher.
While the English teacher to whom Ms. Evans directed her disdain may have been such a timid type that simply having her teaching methods criticized on Facebook caused her great angst, the high school’s gross overreaction that included harm to the student’s academic career, should not be allowed to stand. In disallowing the school’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit subsequently brought against it by the student to clear her record (and thereby permitting the suit to proceed), the federal court in Miami has struck a blow not only in support of free speech, but in defense of common sense as well.