Facebook poses problems to schools and raises privacy, free speech questions

204534_Facebook_Friendly_MaMore fallout from Facebook. This developing case out of Douglas County re-inforces the problems to schools from student postings on Facebook. In this case, the middle school took strong action, but I wonder if the actions will hold up if there are court challenges.

Where the school might have crossed a legal line is when the principal ordered the 13-year-old girl who called her teacher a pedophile online to log onto her Facebook account so the official could read the offending post and ensuing responses by her friends.

(Can someone explain why parents let young kids have Facebook pages? I still don’t get that as it seems ripe for abuse and problems.)

Take a look at the updated story on the AJC.

According to the new AJC story:

The investigation by Douglas County school officials resulted in the suspension of Alejandra Sosa and two other Chapel Hill Middle School students. They could face harsher penalties, including banishment to a school for children with behavior problems, when they go before a tribunal March 10.Alejandra told the AJC in an interview that included her mother Thursday that she regrets what she posted Feb. 17. She said she is drafting an apology to her teacher. She also said the school principal violated her privacy by taking her to a school library computer Monday and ordering her to log in to her Facebook account.

Principal Jolene Morris took over the keyboard and read what Alejandra and others had posted before ordering the student to delete the posts, Alejandra said.

Morris did not return a call and an e-mail seeking comment, and school system spokeswoman Karen Stroud said she did not know details about how school officials conducted their investigation.

Stroud did confirm that three students were suspended for making comments about a Chapel Hill teacher on Facebook, but had little else to say about the case. “Because of federal privacy protection law, we don’t talk about students,” Stroud said. “We certainly don’t talk about specific students and their disciplinary situations.”

Stroud referred a reporter to a portion of the school code that the children are accused of violating. It’s a “level one” offense, the worst possible: “Falsifying, misrepresenting, omitting, or erroneously reporting” allegations of inappropriate behavior by a school employee toward a student.

Alejandra said she created the Facebook post because she was mad at one of her teachers. When she got home, she said, she wrote on the social networking site that the man was a pedophile.

It was a joke, she said.

The joke got out of hand when school officials somehow learned of the comment and other comments made in response by other students. The middle schoolers, among other things,  called the teacher a rapist and claimed he had bipolar disorder, according to Alejandra and the parents of two of the other children who posted Facebook comments.

I wrote recently about a similar California case in which a student was suspended for Facebook comments about his teacher. But that student won his legal challenge of the school suspension. (He wrote that his honors class biology teacher  was  “a fat ass who should stop eating fast food and is a douche bag.”)

The school charged the student with cyberbullying and suspended him, but the ACLU argued that the suspension violated the student’s free speech rights and cited the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines, In that case, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  In its letter, the ACLU noted that the student posted the Facebook comments from his home computer outside of school.

Here is a New York Times story on another case where a school suspension was overruled by the court:

A few families have successfully sued schools for failing to protect their children from bullies. But when the Beverly Vista School in Beverly Hills, Calif., disciplined Evan S. Cohen’s eighth-grade daughter for cyberbullying, he took on the school district.

After school one day in May 2008, Mr. Cohen’s daughter, known in court papers as J. C., videotaped friends at a cafe, egging them on as they laughed and made mean-spirited, sexual comments about another eighth-grade girl, C. C., calling her “ugly,” “spoiled,” a “brat” and a “slut.”

J. C. posted the video on YouTube. The next day, the school suspended her for two days.

“What incensed me,” said Mr. Cohen, a music industry lawyer in Los Angeles, “was that these people were going to suspend my daughter for something that happened outside of school.” On behalf of his daughter, he sued.

Last November, Judge Stephen V. Wilson of Federal District Court found that the off-campus video could be linked to the school: J. C. told perhaps 10 students about it; the humiliated C. C. and her mother showed it to school officials; educators watched it and investigated.

But the legal test, he wrote in his 57-page decision, was whether J. C.’s video had caused the school “substantial” disruption. Judge Wilson ruled in favor of the young videographer, because the disruption was only minimal: administrators dealt with the matter quietly and before lunch recess.

This legal test comes from a 1969 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which a school suspended students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

The court overturned the suspension, but crafted a balance between a school’s authority and a student’s freedom of expression. When a student’s speech interferes substantially with the school’s educational mission, a school can impose discipline.

The district had to pay J. C.’s costs and lawyers’ fees: $107,150.80.

Judge Wilson also threw in an aside that summarizes the conundrum that is adolescent development, acceptable civility and school authority.

The good intentions of the school notwithstanding, he wrote, it cannot discipline a student for speech, “simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments.”

The lesson Mr. Cohen hopes his daughter learns from the case is about the limits on governmental intrusion. “A girl came to school who was upset by something she saw on the Internet,” Mr. Cohen said in a telephone interview, “and these people had in their mind that they were going to do something about it. The school doesn’t have that kind of power. It’s up to the parents to discipline their child.”

He did chastise his daughter, saying, “That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”

He describes her video as “relentlessly juvenile,” but not an example of cyberbullying, which he said he did not condone. His daughter offered to remove it from YouTube. But Mr. Cohen keeps it posted, he said, “as a public service” so viewers can see “what kids get suspended for in Beverly Hills.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

154 comments Add your comment

td

March 2nd, 2011
2:25 pm

I will be the first to post and say that as hateful and horrible as these comments are that they are protected under free speech rights and the school should not have taken any action. My view is backed up by todays supreme court decision that said the nuts could contine to yell horrible things at military funerals because they are protected by free speech.

We either support the first amendment protections or we need to repeal it.

Baker

March 2nd, 2011
2:28 pm

The ACLU will be all over this before the day is over.

Ernest

March 2nd, 2011
2:31 pm

Good point, td! And thanks Maureen for referencing the Tinker’s case. I believe that one is also referenced when school districts seek to mandate uniform policies. As I understand there can be a dress code but not a uniform policy because of that case. Can anyone confirm?

V for Vendetta

March 2nd, 2011
2:33 pm

Free speech. Case closed.

Maureen Downey

March 2nd, 2011
2:36 pm

@V, I wish you were the judge on the three cases in which I served on juries. I could have been out of there in an hour.
Maureen

Annette thompson

March 2nd, 2011
2:36 pm

If students are not to be punished, then teachers should also not be punished for comments made on facebook.

[...] Original post by EconMatters: Robert Hahn and Peter Passell [...]

What's best for kids?

March 2nd, 2011
2:41 pm

There is a difference between free speech and libel. Pronouncing that a teacher has a fat a$$ is very different than saying that a teacher is a bi-polar pedophile rapist.

Maureen Downey

March 2nd, 2011
2:44 pm

@What’s best, I agree with that, but is it the school’s call to act or the individual teacher? The teacher may have reason to sue, but does the school have reason to act? Clearly, this is offensive stuff, but the question is whether schools can step into this under the law.
Maureen

Patty

March 2nd, 2011
2:47 pm

….so, if the teachers start doing the same thing as the students, then it will all be OK and forgotten? You are an idiot if you think that a teacher would get away with it. Just picture it, a teacher is at home on their personal computer and posts a negative comment on any social network about one of their students. Do you really believe that the parents will ignore this and say “the teacher should not be subjected to school discipline because it is a privacy issue”…Dream On! Sometimes it takes putting that shoe on the other foot to realize that this is a no win scenario.

Private School parent right now

March 2nd, 2011
2:50 pm

I agree, What’s best for kids.
Fat a** is an opinion, pedophile and rapist sound like libel or slander. I’m all for free speech, but this sounds like an accusation. If they don’t have proof, maybe the kids (and their parents) should be sued by the teacher and/or school system.

What's best for kids?

March 2nd, 2011
2:54 pm

Maureen,
I think that the school’s suspension does the following:
1. Saves the parents money on lawyers’ fees.
2. Teaches the students a much needed lesson without adding a criminal record to their lives.
If I were the teacher, I would sue the pants off of the little monsters, but I would think that the parents would be happy that the school only suspended them instead of the teacher lawyering up.

Chrome Gouda

March 2nd, 2011
2:55 pm

The court was right to side with the parent here, as the school overstepped its authority. However…

I wonder if the sanctimonious Mr. Cohen realizes that what he is actually doing by leaving online that hateful video that his daughter created is showing the world what a poor parent he is, and what a mean-spirited little bully he has raised.

Shameful.

Pluto

March 2nd, 2011
2:55 pm

Yes I guess these comments are protected under free speech laws but the argument that this is a privacy issue is ridiculous. Once you hit the internet with information you have forfeited your privacy argument. The bigger question is where has discernment, respect for authority, common decency and love your neighbor gone? Another social phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with parents raising kids, right? These technologies start out with good intentions but are soon corrupted by us.

Shar

March 2nd, 2011
2:57 pm

Offensive, juvenile, moronic baiting, unless it carries a specific threat or qualifies as libel, is protected. School suspension is not appropriate punishment, either from a legal (and legal cost) perspective or as an effective deterrent. I’d much prefer to see such posts identified, displayed and discussed at a school assembly, preferably with the poster required to read it aloud. Shame and ridicule are fearfully effective social penalties, particularly among young adolescents.

Fericita

March 2nd, 2011
2:59 pm

I do believe free speech is a vital part of our country, but the fact that this father watched his daughter say hurtful things and his reaction was to sue the school system for disciplining her? Pretty terrible parenting. No wonder schools are doing so much parenting if his idea with dealing it was to tell her “it wasn’t nice.”

Parents can’t have it both ways – they can’t expect schools to handle the bullying that goes on via the internet and then complain about free speech when their kids are disciplined for it.

What a dad

March 2nd, 2011
3:00 pm

He chastised his daughter and then left it up. FAIL!!

jj

March 2nd, 2011
3:05 pm

Let me start by saying I am not a lawyer. If the teacher is not a pedophile or rapist as stated by these kids, is that not at a minimum slander? These were not comments about being fat or ugly they are criminal accusations with the sole intent of discrediting and maligining a teacher. I’m not so sure these types of comments fall under the same protection as general opinion comments.
Would Mr. Lambert appreciate if similar comments about him were sent to his employer?

td

March 2nd, 2011
3:11 pm

@ Maureen, To answer your questions posted earlier:

The school has no right to act on matters that happen outside of the school grounds. This is a free speech issue and the Westboro Baptist Church case settled today is just further proof. It is up to the individual teachers to sue for liable. As a side note I would love to be on that jury and make the parents take the responsibility for the actions of their children.

Private School parent right now

March 2nd, 2011
3:13 pm

Maureen, I’m not a lawyer, but doesn’t the school and/or district have a vested interest in teachers being held in high regard? If a teacher is labeled a pedophile, that would be a reflection of the school system that hired him or her, wouldn’t it? That is, can a school system be held responsible for hiring a pedophile as a teacher? Untrue accusations against a teacher could still make the school look bad until they are proven false.

Private School parent right now

March 2nd, 2011
3:16 pm

td
The internet is not off school grounds, is it? ;) All schools have internet access now, don’t they?

KimZ'spackage

March 2nd, 2011
3:20 pm

None of the schools business. The Parents on the other hand should beat the kids lil behinds and no computer for a month but for school work.

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) [...]

Mikey D

March 2nd, 2011
3:21 pm

If the suspensions get overturned, I hope the teacher hires an attorney and sues. If this is such a clear-cut case of first amendment rights, then it’s also a pretty clear-cut case of libel. The mere accusation of being a pedophile is enough to destroy someone’s career and life. These students need a taste of what that feels like, since their parents don’t have the backbone to discipline them and can only blame the school for “overreacting”.

KimZ'spackage

March 2nd, 2011
3:28 pm

If this took place a private school I see a paddling coming on. Those poor kids wouldn’t be sitting comfortable in their seats for a few class periods.

td

March 2nd, 2011
3:29 pm

Private School parent right now

March 2nd, 2011
3:16 pm
td
The internet is not off school grounds, is it? All schools have internet access now, don’t they?

I wish I could agree with you but unfortunately this is a free speech issue and the school was wrong. Your earlier point about the school system being slandered is an interesting point. I wish I knew more about civil law to look at that theory.

EnoughAlready

March 2nd, 2011
3:29 pm

How come this isn’t considered cyber bullying? The reason I ask is because parents would be upset if similar things and worse were posted on Facebook about their kids (by other students).

How can we say that their is free speech and then in the same breathe we talk about cyber bullying; as if free speech doesn’t exist?

Private School parent right now

March 2nd, 2011
3:34 pm

td
I have to disagree. Free speech does not include the right to accuse people without proof without expecting serious consequences. The school was right to put the little hoodlums out. There is no worse sentence for a parent to hear at school than “Mr./Mrs. So-and-so is a pedophile.”

Joy in Teaching

March 2nd, 2011
3:39 pm

It’s sickening that the parents and these spoiled brat bullies are whining that they are being picked on and the media is siding with them. This type of slander can permanently ruin this man’s reputation and future job outlook.

The students should be sued for slander and the award should be set really, really high. The parents of these students should be sued for being gosh awful parents and allowing their precious little ones to do anything and everything online without adequate supervision.

These people really do need to get over themselves and take responsibility for their own actions. And if they choose not to, then they should pay through the nose.

MannyT

March 2nd, 2011
3:42 pm

What I leave outside the school should stay outside the school. Should be true for school participants, adults & students.

This makes me think about the teacher that got in trouble for her blog in PA. If the kid can say whatever outside of school, why can’t the teacher? Going further, what about those teachers that got in trouble for having pictures on their facebook pages?

This over regulation of things is a little sad. We want more parental involvement. Charter schools have kids/parents calling teachers after school to make learning interactions better. Seems to me that we just need to revive the old fashioned common courtesy, where I don’t have to like or respect you, but manner are expected.

td

March 2nd, 2011
3:42 pm

Private School parent right now

March 2nd, 2011
3:34 pm

Did you happen to read todays supreme court decision on the Westboro Baptist Church case. In an 8-1 decision the supreme court ruled that people do have the right to stand and yell obscene stuff at the families of dead military heroes at their funerals. Now if they upheld that then I pretty much think posting that someone is a pedophile on FB surely falls within the same protected free speech.

MannyT

March 2nd, 2011
3:43 pm

Ashley

March 2nd, 2011
3:44 pm

These kids should be made to read the Crucible as punishment. Parents need to stop friending and become guardians of truth and respect. Just because they have the rights of free speech on their side, doesn’t make them a good reflection of you as a parent.

Lori

March 2nd, 2011
3:44 pm

Libel or not, the school should not have the right to discipline these students. Now, if the teacher in question wants to sue them, that’s his/her issue. Kids say stupid things all the time. Anything they post on Facebook or whatever is no different that the trash talk on the street corner that they do. Just because someone posts something on Facebook, does that mean we should take it as fact? Really, who believes that these kids have first hand knowledge that this teacher is a pedophile? Stupid. I think the most the school should do (if anything) is let the parents know what was posted. But that is still going a bit far. How did the info get to the school in the first place? Are these students stupid enough to “friend” the teachers at the school, then post stuff about them?

Uh-oh!

March 2nd, 2011
3:47 pm

Psycho kids. The schools are full off them.

So now what?

March 2nd, 2011
3:48 pm

So how does this reference the teacher whose private blog detailed her students’ actions as lazy, irresponsible, and several other “opinions.” Free speech is free speech, no?

KimZ'spackage

March 2nd, 2011
3:49 pm

Those students might find it hard to get good grades for the rest of their time in that school from any teacher. HAHAHA I maybe a pedophile but you will not have a shot at a good college you your brat. Now who has the power?

ID-10-T Error

March 2nd, 2011
3:51 pm

Defaming someone’s character without evidence is illegal. It is called libel (in print.) Libel is NOT protected speech. Look it up.

Lawyered.

2 cents

March 2nd, 2011
3:52 pm

@jj and others

it is correct to note that the supreme court has upheld expulsions of students that slander a teacher such as saying the teacher is a pedophile raptist. the court has also ruled in the students favor when some of the posting were let us say light-hearted.

saying a teacher is bi-polar to me is much more of a joke than calling the teacher a pedophile.

maybe the family wanted this to happen so they can bring a lawsuit thinking there is big money there.

hopefully the teacher will bring a counter suit against the parents for slander.

KimZ'spackage

March 2nd, 2011
3:52 pm

Lazy & irresponsible are pretty easy to prove by the students actions. Being a pedophile takes a little more work to prove.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Augusta

March 2nd, 2011
3:55 pm

DCSS: Have these students’ comments demonstrably diverted the focus of CHMS from instruction?

Mr./Ms. Teacher: Are you identified/identifiable via the comments? Has your reputation been damaged? If so, have you notified your attorney?

td

March 2nd, 2011
3:57 pm

So now what?

March 2nd, 2011
3:48 pm
So how does this reference the teacher whose private blog detailed her students’ actions as lazy, irresponsible, and several other “opinions.” Free speech is free speech, no?

I personally do not think there is any difference and I stood up for the teacher’s fre speech rights in the above cases. The only difference is that the teachers sign contracts with certain clauses that effect their ability to take certain actions or to say certain things that the employer deems as detrimental to the school system. The school systems fired them on these grounds and never mentioned that they did not have the right to say or show what they did.

I was a umpire for many years and got literally cussed out every game for what one team or the other claimed was a bad call. The consequences for the players or coaches actions was to be removed from the game but I had to take the abuse. If I would have cussed back at them or gotten angry then I was not holding to the established norms of professional conduct and could have been fired from my job.

td

March 2nd, 2011
4:00 pm

ID-10-T Error

March 2nd, 2011
3:51 pm
Defaming someone’s character without evidence is illegal. It is called libel (in print.) Libel is NOT protected speech. Look it up.

Lawyered.

But it is actionable as a civil case and not a criminal matter. The school system action of suspension is punishment (criminal) and not allowed under our constitutional right to free speech.

teach me!

March 2nd, 2011
4:00 pm

Just this school year, a student wrote on a facebook page that she was going to kill me. Another student replied “yes, let’s go to her house”. Nothing happened since it was written after school at home and didn’t indicate it would happen at school. I was told I could pursue actions, if I wanted. But why would I want to go after kids and risk more potential harm?

Private School parent right now

March 2nd, 2011
4:02 pm

td
Yes, I did read about the religious nuts and the Supreme Court decision. I hate that their protests were upheld, but I believe the Court was actually right about that one. I may now have to go stand in one of those human chains around a soldier’s funeral to help shield them from the nuts. However, the nuts are yelling incredibly offensive things, but they are not accusing people specifically or individually. These students targeted a specific individual with (what we hope) are untrue accusations. That is a big difference.

Lori
The difference between talking on street corners and Facebook is huge. When we talked trash, there were a handful of us and later if someone asked what was said, people probably would have different recollections. Facebook PUTS IT IN WRITING. How many times have we been told not to put things in writing unless we want to accept the consequences? In regards to your comment about “who believes that these kids have first hand knowledge that this teacher is a pedophile?” Uh, duh. Wouldn’t the kid BE the one to have the first hand knowledge?

You’re right that kids say stupid things all the time. It’s our responsibility as parents to teach them that they should pay attention to what they say, especially when they might be committing an actionable offense with their mouths. And since they made it about school, punishment from the school and parents is appropriate.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Augusta

March 2nd, 2011
4:03 pm

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS:

DCSS: Have the comments of these kids substantially harmed the operation of CHMS?

Teacher: Are you identified/identifiable via the comments? Has your reputation been damaged? If so, has your attorney contacted the DCSS, Mr. Lambert, and the parents/guardians of the other two commentators?

No Teacher Left Behind

March 2nd, 2011
4:09 pm

Libel is libel. If an adult posted slanderous comments about me on Facebook, I would sue them. Same for students, if I became cognizant they were posting negative comments about me as a teacher, I would sue them and their parents for blemishing/ruining my professional reputation. Lawyered.

Over the Hill

March 2nd, 2011
4:10 pm

The folks participating in this year’s legislative session think schools should be involved in dealing with actions like this. Check out H.B. 310 at this link

http://www1.legis.ga.gov/legis/2011_12/pdf/hb310.pdf

J

March 2nd, 2011
4:12 pm

I am both a teacher and a libertarian. I support 1st Amendment rights in almost all cases but this is a little different. The students didn’t just call this person a name or attack his character but they accused him of a crime that DIRECTLY and I mean DIRECTLY affects his career. The mere suspicion of any kind of inappropriate physical contact with a child regardless if they are said teacher’s student or not is enough to get you run out of any school district at the least and could cost you your career entirely as well as legal hell at the worst. These specific comments while made in a private setting could have very public consequences for the teacher which in my opinion makes the students libel.

No Teacher Left Behind

March 2nd, 2011
4:13 pm

Free Speech is Free Speech and Libel is Libel. If an adult were to make these types of disparaging remarks about me on Facebook, I would sue them. If students were to make these same remarks on Facebook about me, I would sue them and their parents for blemishing/ruining my professional reputation. Lawyered.