Facebook, free speech and the new ‘D-word’

Apparently they don’t find douchebags funny in California, either.

A Sacramento-area sophomore made headlines last week when his school reversed course on punishing him for insulting comments made on Facebook. Donny Tobolski wrote – at home, on his own time – that his biology teacher, Mr. Cimino, was a “fat ass who should stop eating fast food, and is a douchebag.”

The school called it cyberbullying. The ACLU thought otherwise.

After handing out a one-day suspension in December, the San Juan Unified School District has agreed to expunge the discipline from Tobolski’s file. A district spokesman told California Watch that the post didn’t “meet the requirement of causing a disruption to the school environment” – the famous Tinker standard in student expression cases. And while it appears San Juan was able to deal with this out of court, the situation is an interesting parallel to another high-profile First Amendment case.

Remember Avery Doninger? She was punished by her Connecticut high school after calling school officials “douchebags” on a LiveJournal blog back in 2007. Nearly four years later, her free speech lawsuit against the school continues – with the latest ruling from a federal appeals court expected soon.

That case, along with two others currently pending before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, could provide some clarity to the muddled legal landscape of off-campus expression. As First Amendment scholar David Hudson recently told the SPLC Report, the U.S. Supreme Court will almost certainly need to weigh in. What’s at stake is not merely the right to call your teacher the “d-word” – but the right to criticize authority figures. (Student journalists take note.) As Tobolski’s mother said in an ACLU news release:

This is not a Facebook thing, it’s a communication thing. Teens should be able to vent, and children should be able to write things down, and say what they want to say.  School officials have no business punishing students for harmless words.

Avery and Donny might not have made the best word choices, but they both had grievances to air with their respective schools. And they both learned the hard way that threats to student speech don’t end with the final bell.

For more on the California situation, check out these sources:

Check back with www.splc.org for the latest on the Doninger, J.S. and Layshock cases.