Can students call their principal a “big steroid freak” or worse on the Internet with impunity?

Should a teacher have a right to do anything more than steam when a student posts on Facebook or MySpace that she was the worst teacher ever? Can students post photos of their principals with the captions “Big whore” and “big steroid freak.”?

facebook (Medium)Ken Paulson, president of the Newseum and First Amendment Center, is a former co-worker of mine back when I used to work for a newspaper in Florida. He takes on these thorny issues in an op-ed in USA Today.

(He was one of those journalists with a law degree, so he had great depth on legal issues and, as this piece shows, still does. I think law and journalism are a great pairing.)

I am torn on this issue, as I think such postings contribute to a toxic environment in schools, but I also value freedom of speech, even when the speech is idiotic.

I also worry that the kids themselves do not understand not only the injury to their victims from their juvenile rantings, but to their own futures. I know prospective employers who have eliminated possible student interns and hires on the content of their Facebook pages.

Ken wrote a provocative piece about students and free speech in USA Today:

By Ken Paulson

While we’ve all benefited from the good teachers and school administrators in our lives, it’s hard to shake the memories of those who either didn’t teach us very well or treated us badly.

Students in the pre-digital era pretty much just had to grin and bear it. We would grumble to our friends or complain to our parents, but we weren’t going to get an audience with the school board.

Times have changed. The current generation is armed with social media, and it’s payback time.

Students across America are increasingly turning to MySpace, Facebook and blogs to vent about real or perceived slights, setting the stage for an eventual Supreme Court ruling that will decide how much free speech students in America’s public schools really have.

While some teachers and principals are resigned to snarky and anonymous comments on the Web, others have taken disciplinary steps against students posting critical content. Among recent cases:

•Katie Evans, a high school senior in Pembroke Pines, Fla., was suspended after complaining about “the worst teacher I’ve ever met” on her Facebook page. Now a graduate, she’s pursuing civil claims.

•Alex Fuentes, a Wesley Chapel, Fla., high school senior was voted out of the National Honor Society by a panel of six teachers for creating a Facebook page critical of his high school’s low academic rating. The page drew crude and cutting comments from other students.

•In strikingly similar cases, students in two Pennsylvania schools were suspended for creating mock MySpace profiles featuring photos of their principals. Both pages were profane and laden with sexual innuendo. Sample epithets from one: “Big whore” and “big steroid freak.”

For decades, the issue of free speech in the schools seemed to be settled. In a landmark case in 1969, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment rights of public school students to wear black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. The high court asserted that young people have First Amendment rights, noting “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Short of a substantial disruption of school operations, the kids could have their say, the Supreme Court concluded.

Four decades later, the stakes have changed. The black armband has been supplanted by the Internet, a potent tool for information, education and character assassination.

For young people, the Web presents an unprecedented opportunity to share their views with their friends, schoolmates and the community beyond. Some use it more wisely than others.

The two cases involving Pennsylvania school principals and MySpace could hold the key to the future of free expression for public school students. The cases ended up before separate panels of judges of the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which reached opposite conclusions. One panel concluded that the student had a First Amendment right to publish his parody because the school district did not demonstrate that the outrageous (and unbelievable) statements about the principal would significantly disrupt the teaching environment. The other panel justified the school’s actions as a way to preserve the principal’s authority and avert future disruption.

So what happens when the same court of appeals reaches conflicting opinions on the same exact day?

In these cases, its members decided to go into an en banc session, essentially hearing the same cases again with the full complement of judges. The law is that murky, and might not be clear until the Supreme Court steps in.

While there’s no question that these attacks on principals were sophomoric and insulting, we tend to forget that students also have rights. Too often, adults seem to believe that you get handed the Bill of Rights along with your high school diploma; that’s not the case.

It’s tough to defend such insults by teens, but check out the comments section of any online publication and you’ll find adults posting abrasive, degrading, racist and sexist opinions, all with the full protection of the First Amendment.

Government officials — and that’s what public school administrators and teachers are — have no business limiting the free expression rights of young people without some extraordinary and overriding circumstances.

A 16-year-old posting a crude parody mocking President Obama would not be suspended from a public school. It’s only when the target is a school official or teacher that school districts retaliate.

The best legal path in these cases is to treat young people posting ugly and potentially defamatory content the way we would adults. If the content is illegal or threatening, charge them. If the content is libelous, sue them, as some teachers and principals have done. And if the content is neither criminal nor libelous, accept a provocative posting as the free speech that it is.

The two cases now before the 3rd Circuit have one more thing in common. In both cases, the court records report that the children responsible for the rogue MySpace pages mocking their principals received significant punishments from their parents. Isn’t that the best way to deal with these cases? When school administrators become aware of postings that malign teachers or principals, they should call the parents and let them mete out punishment.

Parental responsibility is a beautiful thing: no lawsuits, no fees and no court of appeal.

The First Amendment ensures that “Congress shall make no law” limiting free expression. It makes no mention of Mom and Dad.

Ken Paulson, president of the Newseum and First Amendment Center, is a former editor of USA TODAY and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

38 comments Add your comment

justbrowsing

July 20th, 2010
12:39 pm

report their comments as offensive to the social media network and they can shut it down.

EnoughAlready

July 20th, 2010
1:06 pm

I have instructed my daughter never to voice a negative opinion or post anyting on facebook/myspace about a teacher; they hold GRUDGES. You never know when you might need a reference or encounter them again ( ex: they start teaching a new subject) and you have to take the class.

And if someone else ask about them, keep your opinion to yourself.

E

July 20th, 2010
1:11 pm

I tend to agree with the author at the end of the article..

“The best legal path in these cases is to treat young people posting ugly and potentially defamatory content the way we would adults. If the content is illegal or threatening, charge them. If the content is libelous, sue them, as some teachers and principals have done. And if the content is neither criminal nor libelous, accept a provocative posting as the free speech that it is”

Since when did adults start to worry about what a child though of them?

E

July 20th, 2010
1:12 pm

ScienceTeacher671

July 20th, 2010
1:16 pm

When I began teaching, a well-respected veteran teacher our family knows well advised me, “You’re there to teach them, not to win a popularity contest.” Of course, that is heresy in today’s climate where it’s frequently believed that if the students don’t like you, they can’t learn from you. However, I remember several teachers from my youth who were wildly disliked while we were in their classes, but are greatly respected by my peers and me now — because we know how much we learned in those classes.

Over the years I’ve found that some students will love you and some will not, and some of those students who seem to dislike you the most while they are in your class are the most likely to come back and visit later, so most of this should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Where it falls into the clearly libelous range you’d have to draw the line I think.

Echo

July 20th, 2010
1:23 pm

ratemyteacher.com has some pretty harsh things on it as well. If a kid is voicing an opinion ie: “that teacher is the worst teacher I ever had” it is probably protected speech. (I think it would be interesting if teachers were allowed to post an opinion of that student in response. But that would be considered “unprofessional” and mean spirited.)

On the flip side; a kid actually starting a webpage and doing “parody” shouldn’t be “protected speech”. Teachers and principals are NOT public figures like celebrities and politicians. Even if most people would see the posts as false or just a joke. Shut the fake pages down and hit ‘em with a lawsuit.

Larry Major

July 20th, 2010
1:40 pm

Free speech doesn’t encompass all speech for kids any more than it does for adults.

Stating someone is “the worst teacher I ever had” is an opinion and protected. Other statements, like “whore”, may very well be libelous and actionable, just as if an adult had issued the statement. What constitutes “disruption” is a judgment call and probably always will be.

Mr. Paulson has the correct take on the situation.

Angela

July 20th, 2010
1:50 pm

Well, here is my 2cents. I have had some really mean things said and written about me by some students. But, much of which I took with a grain of salt and never took it out on the student. I am a teacher (and yes I know not all think this way) with morals and truly believe that what goes around comes around.

One of the meanest things that was said about me was a student drew pictures and called me all sort of mean names. When I read it I had to laugh because if you could have seen the picture she drew you would have had to laugh. I asked who wrote and drew it and no one would talk. Well, a few hours later the student came to me and said she did. My response was “I laughed and gave her a hug and told her it was going to be okay.” From that day forward she got me as her teacher and I got her as my student. We had a wonderful rest of the school year.

My advice to vengeful people in general “the problem is not what someone has said mean to or about you it is what you think of yourself – perhaps the problem is not with them it is with you and you perhaps need to seek help not revenge.”

There are laws to govern this behavior

July 20th, 2010
2:35 pm

There are libel and slander laws governing this type of behavior. If the teacher, etc believes they have been wronged the courts are available to handle it. The school system should be out of that loop. They cannot dictate a “citizens” behavior that takes place in a non-school environment. They do not own the students.

Private School Guy

July 20th, 2010
4:00 pm

School leaders should have thinker skins. This stuff should roll off them like teflon. Kids also need to know about libel and slander.

Teacher

July 20th, 2010
4:12 pm

The fact that kids – and I stress the fact that these are minors – feel empowered to call any adult names is a complete reflection on their parents…… or better yet, it is the lack of parenting.

The teacher/administrator should contact the parents. And, in an ideal world, the parents would reprimand their kid and take down the insults. However, today’s parents have zero control over their own offspring, so this won’t work.

Today, it is all about the law. Sue the kids and the parents. That is all there is to do.

Concerned

July 20th, 2010
4:35 pm

So, if a student calls a principal a steroid freak or a principal a whore, it should be free speech. But if those same comments are made toward another student, it’s cyber-bullying. There cannot be black and white in one case and three shades of gray in the other.

Ole Guy

July 20th, 2010
4:57 pm

The year: 1964
The culprit: graduating senior
The crime: hanging the principal, in effigy, from the flag pole.
The punishment: senior class assembly at which the culprit was ordered to appoligize to the principal, staff/faculty, and the class, followed by a few licks…ON STAGE.

None of us cared for the public humiliation to which our classmate had been made to endure…but he did, and we cheered for him and gave him all the support a bunch of 17-18 year old idiots could muster.

To this day, Tim remains a tough ole fart. We talk about this, and similar events, laugh and wonder…right, wrong, or indifferent…”We were no different from today’s crop of idiot kids, yet we were fortunate to have adults in our lives who weren’t afraid to do the tough and psychologically painful things which had to be done. And, you know, as ole farts today, we’re a helluva lot better…and tougher…for it”.

By the way, Tim never attempted suicide.

catlady

July 20th, 2010
5:31 pm

I agree. If it crosses the line from opinion, which even kids can have, to libel or defamation of character or fighting words (affray?), go after civil/criminal redress, and do the most possible to get the parents as part of the reparations.

what's the difference

July 20th, 2010
5:47 pm

I don’t see anything different between this issue and sites like “Rate Your Professor” for college professors.

Maureen Downey

July 20th, 2010
5:54 pm

@What’s the difference, One difference is that those sites are in the context of colleges where students are legal adults and where the schools exercise far less control over student behaviors.
Maureen

Ros Dalton

July 20th, 2010
6:03 pm

It’s the ‘net. Any kid worth his salt can post anything he or she wants in perfect anonymity by making the tiniest effort. If they’re posting under their own names I feel certain nature will take it’s proper course in terms of their eventual comeuppance. Attempting some sort of punishment within the system for behavior outside the system is surely bound to cause more trouble than any insult I ever heard from a kid is worth.

Nothing stops a kid from using any of a dozen freebie forum sites to create an insult zone where the other kids know each other by fake name and score the same thrill as speaking under their own ID, but consequence free because of the relative anonymity. The effort required to even attempt to police the dozens of possible popular outlets for the behavior is wildly out of proportion to the possible reward of catching the few too lazy to protect their identity.

So… You cannot prevent it. You cannot consistently punish it. You are almost certainly not harmed by it. Let it pass.

You have to keep in mind that most of these kids don’t yet know the value of their words. If you go full out to chase down and prosecute every little punk that says the word ‘whore’ or ‘freak’ behind your back you reinforce the notoriety of them having said it in the first place, when, really, it’s just meaningless spew.

Angela

July 20th, 2010
6:18 pm

@catlady, teacher, Echo,

Echo, Teachers and principals are NOT public figures like celebrities and politicians.

**** Correction we are public figures (servant to be exact).

Catlady – If it crosses the line from opinion, which even kids can have, to libel or defamation of character or fighting words (affray?), go after civil/criminal redress, and do the most possible to get the parents as part of the reparations.

*****GEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Fighting Words!!!!!

Teacher – The teacher/administrator should contact the parents. And, in an ideal world, the parents would reprimand their kid and take down the insults. However, today’s parents have zero control over their own offspring, so this won’t work.

Today, it is all about the law. Sue the kids and the parents. That is all there is to do.

******** I would love to be able to sue the parents however, it would not be for the mean things their child said about me. It would be for their lack of parenting skills. Now, if the student hits me I can and will take it to a level (not only with the school system, the school and the parents) that would allow me to live a lot more comfortable – especially if I have on a regular reported this student because of behavior. But, just for a student making negative remark about me, I am not that fragile.

PEOPLE, PEOPLE – Get a grip words are just that from child to/at adult get over it. I think we as adults are forgetting some of the MEAN things we said about our teachers. The difference today is that if you were in high school in the 50-80’s all of the technology today did not exist. You still said those mean things. Get over it – Jesus Did!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tony

July 20th, 2010
7:26 pm

This is another example of the deterioration of respect to others. It is a shame for our society in general to defend such crude behavior. Just a few weeks ago, we spoke about how words like these from peer to peer should be considered bullying and that schools had a responsibility to intervene. Now we are defending the same kinds of words simply because they are directed to the teachers and principals? How can we truly teach our children the moral lessons that are so important for life by sending such mixed messages?

Angela

July 20th, 2010
7:46 pm

@Tony

So, I gather you never said a mean thing about your teachers, friends, people you don’t like, etc.?
Respect, is taught in the home. However, no matter what we are taught we still tend to do things we know that we should not. Everyone, knows right from wrong even if they say they don’t.

I just feel that because this has been posted on the internet it is a problem. Facebook, in my opinion is designed for that type of thing (and it is apparent that this blog is as well. Teachers are deemed on this blog all day. Oh, but I guess names are not being used – go figure). This is why I don’t subscribe. However, teachers are the least respected profession not just by students but the general public and now majorly the government. They are pitting all kinds of mean things against us. So, if you want to cut of the hands and fingers of students why not start with those adult professionals that disrespect us.

Echo

July 20th, 2010
8:10 pm

@ Angela…please know the what the law regards as “public figure” before you try to correct me. Teachers and school administrators ARE NOT public figures. I can make a parody about Obama or Rush Limbaugh that shows or states them to be cross dressers if I want, it is protected speech! That same classification (public figures) is not given to teachers/administrators just because we are “public servants”.

Lee

July 20th, 2010
8:19 pm

“If the content is illegal or threatening, charge them. If the content is libelous, sue them, as some teachers and principals have done. And if the content is neither criminal nor libelous, accept a provocative posting as the free speech that it is.”

A common sense approach, IMHO.

I would add that unless the student used a school computer to post the items on the internet, the school really has no authority in this matter.

OldTimer

July 20th, 2010
8:23 pm

If you’re afraid to be called out on Facebook then you sir are a coward.

Concerned 1

July 20th, 2010
9:03 pm

Do administrators have access to our identities here? We say things freely but Iam being retaliated against so viciously by APS that I wonder. I told the truth and they got angry… No name calling.

KJ

July 20th, 2010
9:07 pm

There are a lot of coaches that are extremely lucky the internet wasn’t around back when they were plowing their students. It would have definitely gotten ugly, at my high school.

Sedgrid

July 20th, 2010
9:24 pm

I support the right of the student to express their freedom of speech. I also support the right of the parent to punish this type of behavior in their household. Parents should hold teens accountable and establish some type of internet use policy in their house. If a teen violates that policy based upon inappropriate behavior, then they loose their computer. Parents can purchase a snoopstick from http://www.spyparent.net to monitor what their kids are doing on social media websites.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca Gebhardt, Maureen Downey. Maureen Downey said: Can students call their principal a “big steroid freak” or worse on the Internet with impunity? http://bit.ly/anLdBh [...]

Lee

July 21st, 2010
5:57 am

@Sedgrid, Years ago, when my daughters were younger and chatrooms were in vogue, I bought a spyware type program to monitor their internet activities. I did this because I noticed they would minimize or swap screens whenever I walked by. Thankfully, the spyware program confirmed silly, teenage girl banter. It still gave me peace of mind knowing they were not involved in anything that I would not approve.

Trust, but verify.

Elizabeth

July 21st, 2010
9:58 am

Science Teacher 671 said it best. That sense that you must be liked for a student to do well is ridiculous and causes problems with students and paretns. As for libelous comments on the wenb. I would take legal action to protect my professional reputation. Who knows who might access that? It is blatant disrespect and should not be tolerated.

Warrior Woman

July 21st, 2010
11:04 am

If a student does something outside of school and school-related activities, without using school resources, that does not break the law, the school has no business intervening. Students have First Amendment rights just like other citizens.

GA Educator

July 21st, 2010
11:22 am

If you’re concerned about what they say on a social network, you should visit the schools sometimes and hear what they say directly to the teachers. Kids are very abusive, and yes, it takes a thick skin. If you don’t have it, you will curl up and die when too many of them finish with you.

HStchr

July 21st, 2010
12:18 pm

If it causes harm, i.e. you lose your job, then it’s libel. I’ve been called names to my face and got over it. Most of the time, kids are just venting their opinions and shouldn’t be given the encouragement that the attention will give. I’d say get over it, monitor the discussion, and make sure no direct threats are made. Free speech is guaranteed as long as it doesn’t injure another.

Don't teach - Sue!

July 22nd, 2010
12:02 am

First time blogger so please excuse me if I hurt anyone’s feelings…..and please don’t sue me if I do(it won’t be the homerun you are looking for…..your attorney will be the big winner).

Why is it that we are always trying to get someone else (specifically the government) to solve our problems for us? It is obviouos the government has more than they can handle now. Leave the legal system out of it. That seems to be everyone’s lottery…or perceived lottery anyway and we all end up paying for it. Have you been to your neighborhood pool this summer and heard what everyone is saying about you? Who cares….get over it!

I agree that parents are not taking or going to take an active role in their child’s education/nuturing in many cases, but taking someone to court is not going to help change anything. There should be several in house (or school) disciplinary actions that will get the kid’s and/or the parent’s attention – reports on proper useage of the internet, detention, removal from extra-curricular activities, suspension, expulsion, failure/not graduating on time, summer school, alternative schools etc. And by all means, physical violence against an educator should be a criminal offense, not a civil matter.

Maybe there should be sensitivity classes (or topics in sensitivities covered in regular core classes) for all kids (K-12) at the beginning of each semester for frequent reminders. And for that matter teach sensitivity reduction in the same class that goes something like this….”sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. This would not only be a valuable lesson that the kids aren’t getting at home, but also be a good avenue to let the expectations of the school/educators be known.

Ole Guy

July 22nd, 2010
9:12 am

HStchr, you are absolutely correct in that free speech is a right. Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers failed to envision future populations incapable of responsible informed speech. Little did they realize that this “right”, like so many rights we, as a free society enjoy, would have the potential of chocking that very society.

lyncoln

July 22nd, 2010
9:43 am

Does anyone else recall the teacher that was asked to resign based on personal postings on facebook? or was it myspace?

What happens if a student makes a fake myspace page (such as the fake priniciple ones) for a teacher they dislike, and then a parent contacts the school regarding the myspace page as having comments/material they dislike?
It’s entirely possible that the school then calls in a teacher and asks for a resignation based on a webpage that the teacher never created.

I agree with the others that some of these students might need to learn about slander/libel laws in a very personal context.

OTOH

July 23rd, 2010
3:22 am

Off school grounds, out of school control. Not their business. If the teacher thinks she has been libeled, she can sue for that, as she could if the poster were an adult unconnected with the school. She won’t win if the post is opinion ie ” She is a bad teacher.” Parodies are safe from libel even when the parodied are not public figures.

OTOH

July 23rd, 2010
3:32 am

Ole Guy; you are wrong. The Founding Fathers were very aware that many were “incapable of responsible informed speech and of the wild things people would use their right to speech for. They concluded that more speech is better than assumed “responsible informed speech”.

Ole Guy

July 23rd, 2010
5:21 pm

Thanks for the correction, OH. Those remarks were intended to illustrate the depths to which “modern man”, with all the trappings and tools of an “advanced society”, has decended. Despite ever-rising educational levels, 24/7 bombardment of what transpires in every nook and crany of the globe…and permenant press shirts, mankind continues to exhibit the mentality of a drunken idiot.

I think you would agree, however, that the “rights” which we (should) hold sacred have become the excess rope which, employed with mindless abandon, will become the rope with which civilization will surely hang itself.

To think that some idiot kid, unhappy with a teacher, could post remarks on a public forum which could have the very real impact of ruining careers, is nothing short of insane. It is these very “rights”…the right to “shoot one’s mouth off” in irresponsible retribution, that will surely lead to the demise of a civilization for which many have suffered, bled, and died.