Back when I was in high school, the only thing we had to worry about was wearing armbands and whether our faculty advisor would heavily edit our articles in the school newspaper. Now things are a lot more complex, and this week we saw our legal cannon start to catch up with how school officials can censor social media.
The issues evolve around whether a Facebook Wall post is considered a public forum, and whether posting to Facebook or other social media sites is considered part of school property when it concerns school officials and employees. These are the things our lawyers worry about to be sure.
I put up a post on ReadWriteWeb this morning that is chock full o’ links that can take you to more interesting places if you want to read more.
But here I want to cover some additional thoughts that didn’t make it into my article.
The classic case law on this is Tinker v. Des Moines, which dates back to those armband-laden 1960s. Tinker is cited many times as the decision that says a school can censor speech if it interferes or materially disrupts the learning environment, and by “environment” it refers to the actual physical school campus. Thus, Tinker needs, well, some tinkering.
That is the rub: those pesky Internets aren’t “on” school property. But they can impact the school process, as anyone who has sat in on a class in the last decade can attest. So to handle this situation, several cases are making their way to the US Supreme Court. One was decided on this week: the Supremes left the lower court decision stand in a case involving censoring a high school girl who called her school administrators a bad name on her blog. There are three other cases that will be decided on later this month, all involving students who either were bullying other students or who were mocking their administrators on MySpace. (Yes, apparently MySpace still has a function in this world that doesn’t involve music promotion. Nice to know.)
But is the Facebook Wall or other pages school property, even if it is “owned” by the school itself? There is some debate about that too, and sadly a university near here took down comments on its page involving a labor dispute. Were they right to do this? I don’t think so, and so far no actual legal action has been filed, but it is still early in this game.
Our legal system moves at a crawl: the Supreme Court cases that were on the docket began their life with activities as early as 2005. So expect these issues to be with us a long time. But the simple days of armbands seem so quaint, don’t they?