In what some student free-expression advocates say is an alarming trend, students at both public and private schools are being punished for Internet postings made off school grounds on Web sites not affiliated with the schools.
Punishing students for Web posts “sets a tone of intolerance that can very well chill other expression,” said Warren Watson, director of J-Ideas at Ball State University, a program that works to develop and encourage excellence in high school journalism. “It’s definitely a disturbing trend.”
Incidents of students being punished for or forced to remove Web posts recently occurred at two New Jersey high schools.
In October, students at Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta were ordered to erase all blogs and personal profiles from the Internet. Rev. Kieran McHugh, the private school’s principal, threatened those who refused to comply with suspension.
McHugh told the Daily Record, a newspaper serving Sparta, that Web sites such as MySpace.com, where members can share photos and journals with a network of friends, are fertile breeding grounds for sexual predators to gather information about students.
McHugh’s decision angered students, who felt the ban infringed on free speech and attempted to control their actions at home, according to the Record.
People who posted messages to a MySpace.com group dedicated to the school voiced concerns over the new policy.
One person claiming to be a student said the school should allow students to continue to use MySpace.com.
“Schools should only be concerned of 2 things: a student’s education and a student’s safety but only if it is in the boundaries of the school,” the user said. “It is not as if we are doing anything obsene [sic], we are just expressing who we are in a web page.”
Kevin Bankston, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said unfortunately private schools can do what they want, but a blanket ban such as this one at a public school would be “totally illegal.”
Educating students about being safe and responsible Internet citizens is much more productive than banning online discussion, Bankston said.
The issue of whether the First Amendment protects bloggers is a hot-button topic right now and it will eventually trickle down to students, Watson said.
“This illustrates how new technology is making these issues of freedom of expression more complicated,” he said.
At Paramus High School, junior Laura Iacovacci was suspended in October for three days over a post she made to another student on MySpace deemed harassing by the school.
Joe Iacovacci, her father, said school officials took a sentence from an online conversation out of context. School officials said that if Laura continued to participate in harassing behavior on the Internet she would be suspended again. She could also be transferred out of classes she attends with the student she allegedly harassed, who Joe Iacovacci said is a longtime friend of his daughter’s.
But it was not all bad news for New Jersey students who have been punished for Web related issues.
In November, school officials in Oceanport agreed to pay a former student $117,500 to settle a lawsuit the student filed claiming his First Amendment rights were violated after administrators punished him for material posted on his Web site.
The settlement comes as a result of an April 3 decision in which a U.S. District Court found Oceanport School District officials violated Ryan Dwyer’s right to free speech.
Dwyer was an eighth grader at Maple Place Middle School in 2003 when school officials suspended him for a week, removed him from the school baseball team for a month and barred him from a class trip because of his “Anti-Maple Place” Web site. The site described the school as “downright boring” and urged visitors to sign a guest book to express their hatred for the school.
In Iowa, a student who faced a felony charge of threatening a terrorist act of violence for material he published online pled guilty to a lesser charge in October.
Paul Wainwright, who posted what officials found to be a threatening message on an Internet discussion board used by students and alumni at Grinnell College, put in a guilty plea to a serious misdemeanor of willful disturbance.
Wainwright’s attorney, Al Willett, said his client was sentenced to two years of probation and received a suspended jail sentence of 120 days.
Willett said Wainwright could have faced up to five years in prison and a $7,500 fine if he had been found guilty on the original felony charge.
The message board was not affiliated with the school.
In Pennsylvania, a student at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University was ordered in October to write a 10-page essay on the pros and cons of homosexuality after officials said a post he made on Facebook.com violated the private school’s code on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Facebook is an online directory that connects people through social networks at schools.
Ryan Miner referred to homosexuals as “subhuman” on a Facebook group protesting a gay-straight alliance some students are trying to start on the Catholic campus.
“They [administrators] have no right to police Facebook ‘ it’s like saying they can police your thoughts,” Miner said. “People may not like it, but I have a right to say it. I should be able to have my First Amendment right.”
After Miner appealed his punishment to Duquesne’s judicial affairs office, the essay was shortened to eight pages and the topic was changed from homosexuality to the dignity of all human beings regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
Miner said he is unsure if he will write the essay, which is due Dec. 15, saying the school did not tell him what would happen if he refused to comply with the punishment.
Also in Pennsylvania, the Columbia Central School Board said in August that school district officials can punish students for actions that take place off school grounds.
Superintendent Harry Mathias told The Associated Press the new policy would help the district discipline students who use the Internet to threaten other students.
According to the policy, students have the right to express themselves unless it “materially or substantially” interferes with other school policies or activities.
Off-campus and after hours speech “likely to materially and substantially” disrupt school activities is considered unprotected expression, according to the policy.
The policy says unprotected expression is defined as libel, advertising substances or materials to endanger students, threats against students or administrators, profanity in any form, encouraging violations of state law and school policy and speech or actions affecting normal school functions or property.
In North Carolina, a student at Charlotte’s Butler High School was suspended for 10 days in October for posting an altered picture of his school’s assistant principal, Calvin Easter, on MySpace.
Dimitri Arethas posted a photo of Easter’s head on top of Robocop’s body, according to an article in Creative Loafing, an alternative weekly newspaper serving Charlotte, N.C. The Charlotte Observer said the picture also included a racially offensive “thought bubble.”
“If a student is at home posting threatening stuff then obviously those kinds of things can be investigated and punished,” said Wat Hopkins, who teaches journalism and communication law at Virginia Tech. “But if a student is only making fun of a school official, courts have said schools must remain hands off.”
Principal Joel Ritchie was alerted to the photo by several students who printed it out and showed it to him. Creative Loafing reported those students had to have looked at the picture off of school grounds because Ritchie said MySpace is blocked on the school’s computer system.
Even though Arethas apologized and removed the photo, Ritchie suspended Arethas for 10 days based on a Charlotte-Mecklenberg School System rule against “any inappropriate information, relating in any way to school issues or school personnel, distributed from home or school computers,” according to Creative Loafing. The suspension was later reduced to two days.
But not all school officials have decided that censoring students’ Web posts is the best way to combat content they deem inappropriate.
In South Carolina, officials decided punishment was not the best answer when they were faced with controversial Internet posts from students in November.
The State, a Columbia newspaper, reported that University of South Carolina administrators decided not to block a Web site which contained racist remarks about the first black fraternity house to be built in the school’s Greek village.
Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs, said the university did not want to set a precedent for blocking sites, according to The State. Instead, the school applied pressure on the site operator and the Greek community to monitor its members and Web sites.
Robert O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, commended the university’s handling of the situation, telling The State that codes that attempt to regulate or prohibit certain types of speech are notoriously ineffective and face high constitutional hurdles. He also said such measures often drive hateful speech underground.
Tom Eveslage, chairman of the journalism department at Temple University, said cases like these will continue to occur.
“I don’t suppose that there’s any chance these cases are going to diminish,” Eveslage said. “People are going to be more brazen about what they say online and school officials are going to flex their muscles a little more strongly to curb them from doing that.
“Journalism instructors, and teachers in general, need to educate about responsibility as well as freedom.”