Calif. students protest social media contract banning 'inappropriate' posts

CALIFORNIA — Dozens of students at a California high school are protesting a new social media contract that would ban a wide array of speech and behavior, including anything deemed “inappropriate” by school administrators.

The policy was written by high school principals in the district and approved by the Lodi Unified School District school board in the spring. In addition to banning posts deemed inappropriate by administrators, it forbids profane or sexual language. Liking, retweeting or favoriting inappropriate posts by others is also prohibited, as is “subtweeting” — where someone writes about a person without mentioning their name.

Students who violate the policy can be suspended from participating in any extracurricular activity or removed entirely.

The Bruin Voice, the student newspaper at Bear Creek High School, wrote about the policy in May, but because it was published in the paper’s last issue of the term, many students didn’t find out about it until they returned to school last month, newspaper adviser Kathi Duffel said.

When they did, students who participate in athletics were given the contracts and told they had to sign as a condition of participating. The policy applies to athletes as well as students who participate in extracurricular clubs, including the student newspaper.

“I’m afraid that by signing this contract, we are basically giving up our freedom of speech in order to be journalists,” said Zachary Denney, a junior on the newspaper staff who plans to write a column about student rights for the paper’s first issue later this month.

Duffel said students are particularly concerned by the general prohibition of posts deemed inappropriate by administrators.

“That’s never defined,” Duffel said. “That’s probably the most troubling of all.”

Bear Creek Principal Bill Atterberry said the policy was a response to “rampant bullying,” much of which takes place off-campus, but which spills over on-campus, too. Atterberry took over as principal at the school this year and wasn’t involved in writing the policy.

“Because of the language, there might be some trampling of student First Amendment rights,” Atterberry said. “But until that’s resolved, safety comes first.”

Atterberry said the policy would apply to posts where students are “made to feel uncomfortable, or some people are calling you names.” The policy is aimed at student athletes and students participating in extracurricular activities because they represent the school.

“If you’re going to get involved, you get held to a higher standard,” he said.

Dawn Vetica, who helped draft the policy as the school district’s assistant superintendent for secondary schools, could not be reached for comment.

The policy applies to schools throughout the district, but Duffel said that so far, only students at Bear Creek have spoken out against it. Monday after school, about 50 students gathered outside the school to protest, Denney said. They chanted “LUSD, don’t silence me” and “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!”

Hannah Jobrack, a junior who helped organize the protest, said that she and other students understand administrators’ concerns about cyberbullying and aren’t opposed to a policy that prohibits it; they just believe the policy as written goes too far.

“We don’t feel like LUSD should replace our parents,” Jobrack said.

Jobrack hasn’t signed the policy but said she’s concerned about what will happen if she’s not allowed to participate in extracurriculars. Sabrina Foster, another student who participated in the protest and who hasn’t signed the policy, said she was told by her golf coach that she needed to return her equipment bag “immediately” if she would not sign the policy. Both Jobrack and Foster said they’re worried about how it will affect their college applications if they cannot participate in clubs or sports.

In addition to Monday’s protest, several hundred have also signed a petition that students plan to deliver to the school board on Tuesday, Jobrack said.

The California Education Code expressly prohibits school districts from making or enforcing any rule that subjects students to punishment for speech that would be constitutionally protected outside of school.

Atterberry said he’s been very impressed with how the students have handled the issue.

“Our students have an issue that they’re interested in, they’ve researched it, they’re giving critical thinking skills a work,” he said. “They’re doing something that’s meaningful that they’re going to remember for the rest of their life.”

Contact Gregory by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.