INDIANA — A West Lafayette High School sophomore said she andseveral other students were punished last week after criticizing anadministrator on a Facebook group site.
Caitlyn Casseday said she received an in-school suspension on Oct. 5 aftershe called an administrator an “ass” on a Facebook group site formedto support another student who was recently suspended after an altercation in acomputer lab. Casseday and other students believe that the administrationunfairly punished the student and formed the group to protest his suspension.
“I got called into (the assistant principal’s office) … and Iasked ‘How can I get in trouble? I have freedom of speech,'”she said.
Another student was punished for posting a video of the altercation onlineand may face expulsion.
West Lafayette School Corporation is one of many school districts acrossthe nation struggling with how to deal with student speech in online forums. Just 70 miles southeast in Indianapolis, officials at Carmel High School expelled a student in 2006 for posting sexually explicit comments about ateacher.
Courts are also grappling with how far student’s freedom of speechshould extend in off-campus, online forums such as MySpace and Facebook. Currently, a case is pending in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to determineif a high school violated a students’ First Amendment rights when theypunished her for calling administrators “douche bags” on her blog byremoving her from student government.
In West Lafayette, the district is considering a policy that would remindstudents that they are legally responsible for anything they post on theInternet, which is modeled after the policies of other districts in thestate.
Rocky Killion, the West Lafayette School Corporation superintendent, couldnot speak about Casseday’s case specifically. But he said the districtmakes a “case-by-case determination” on when to punish students foroff-campus speech.
“There’s not a cookbook approach that says ‘If you dothis we’ll do that,'” he said.
Killion said that court rulings say that “political speech andopinion speech” is protected but that speech that falls outside ofthat definition may be regulated. He added that the Student Conduct Code couldbe applied whenever students are writing about administrators, teachers orstudents online.
“When opinion speech goes beyond the grounds of opinion … toderogatory statements, words that are not allowed in our school setting (and)comments that are threatening … that’s when we’ll investigate thesituation,” he said.
Killion added that the district also scrutinizes off-campus speech if it”causes a disruption in the educational process.”
The Supreme Court’s major student speech ruling, in the 1969 caseTinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, held thatadministrators can only censor speech if they can show that it will cause amaterial disruption or invade the rights of others.
“There has to be essentially an immediate forecastable disruption inthe school process,” said John Bowen, a journalism instructor at KentState University who specializes in student press rights.
Tinker makes no distinction between political speech and speech onother topics, although the Court in later cases recognized other narrowcontent-based exceptions to the Tinker rule. For example, the Court hasheld that schools can ban speech that is lewd or that promotes illegal drug use.However, the Court has yet to determine how these exceptions would apply tooff-campus, independent speech, such as Internet postings.
Casseday said she and other students expressed anger in their posts thatthe student who initiated the altercation in the computer lab was not punished,and that administrators feared for that student’s safety. But Casseday deniedthat anything she posted could be construed as threatening, as she saysadministrators claimed.
Brian Hayes, a journalism instructor at Ball State University whospecializes in high school journalism instruction, said he doubted thatCasseday’s comment would qualify as disruptive under the Tinkerstandard.
“Is this prohibiting school administrators from doing their job? Idoubt it,” he said.
Bowen, the Kent State instructor, also challenged the idea that the StudentConduct Code could be applied off campus except to students participating involuntary extracurricular activities, such as sports teams.
“I don’t think the school could enforce it,” he said.”I think the school is way overstretching its authority here.”
Casseday said she and other students did not plan to take legalaction.