#Freetotweet? Across much of America, students’ online freedoms are under assault.

Two events serendipitously collided today in the world of free speech:

(1) The First Amendment advocacy organization, 1forAll, launched its Twitter campaign, #freetotweet, offering a $5,000 scholarship prize rewarding young people for creative and inspiring posts about free expression.

(2) In North Carolina, it became less free for young people to tweet than ever before.

The ability to use the Web to speak without fear of government reprisal is, in many corners of America, a distant and fading promise.

There is no freedom to tweet in Indiana, where a high school senior was expelledexpelled! — for a junior-grade George Carlin joke on his personal Twitter account that riffed on the versatility of profanity.

There is no freedom to tweet in Minnesota, where — thanks to the University of Minnesota’s recent victory in a state Supreme Court case — you can be kicked out of college for making jokes online that, in the college’s view, indicate unfitness for your chosen profession.

There is no freedom to tweet in Illinois, where at least 10 students were suspended for involvement in an off-campus Twitter post calling a teacher sexy — one for writing the post, others for “retweeting” it, and others for protesting the original discipline. (The school insists it has the authority to punish students for “negative” comments, no matter when and where they are made.)

There is no freedom to tweet in Idaho, where you can be suspended from your college football team for using Twitter to come to the defense of your fired coach.

Free-tweeting students in North Carolina will have no need of scholarship money, as their criminal records will put a ceiling on their college ambitions. Perhaps the next Twitter contest should offer $5,000 bail bonds instead.

Effective December 1, it is now a crime — punishable by up to 60 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine — to “torment” a school employee by posting photos or mock profiles of the employee on the Web. (Although purportedly intended to protect classroom teachers, the law applies equally to speech about all school employees, even high-ranking administrators.)

North Carolina Senate Bill 707, signed by Gov. Beverly Perdue on July 15, is believed to be the nation’s first criminal statute that singles out only “students” for punishment. The law is almost certainly unconstitutional in multiple respects:

  • By threatening prosecution only of students, the law violates the Equal Protection Clause. There is no meaningful distinction between the ability of an 18-year-old high school senior and an 18-year-old high school dropout to “torment” a school employee online, but only the student will face jail time.
  • It does not define what it means to “torment” someone, a term that has no recognized legal meaning. Wouldn’t it be “tormenting” to a school superintendent if a student established a “Fire Superintendent Miller” online petition drive with daily updates about the superintendent’s failings as a public official?
  • It does not require proof that the student was “tormenting” the school employee in connection with anything related to school — or that the student even be aware that the target is a school employee. What if the student takes to the web to air a personal dispute with the next-door neighbor who (perhaps unknown to the student) works at a school across town? Or what if the school employee also serves on the City Council or is a candidate for school board — may students not engage in editorial mockery of the employee’s political views?
  • It provides no safe harbor for speech addressing matters of public concern. For instance, what if a school hires a paroled sex offender, and a student sets up a website alerting the community to be watchful of him? Most of us would call that a public service; in North Carolina, they now call that a misdemeanor.

Senate Bill 707 exemplifies the growing willingness of policymakers (and, more troublingly, of the federal judges who are expected to know better) to consign young people to a civil-rights underclass, not just when they are under school supervision but throughout their daily lives. Do young people sometimes use social media for speech that is ill-considered, mean-spirited or just plain stupid? Yes, and so do old people — and fortunately for many of us, thoughtless and intemperate remarks are “punished” in America by social condemnation, not by the government. And certainly not by jail time.

The Supreme Court has emphatically told us that the government may not sanction people for the content of their speech, even speech that is highly disturbing (videos of dogfights), that has detrimental effects on some audience members (ultra-violent video games), that is brazenly false (lying about having won military honors), or that is grossly offensive to basic human decency (anti-gay hate banners outside of military funerals). Corporations, it turns out, are people. Children, it turns out, are not.

It is uplifting to celebrate the freedoms we have. It gives us dangerously false assurance to celebrate the ones we don’t.