Calif. school district approves new social media policies to replace contract

CALIFORNIA — More than a month after students, parents and free speech organizations protested a Lodi, Calif., school district’s social media contract, the district’s board of trustees unanimously agreed on a reworked policy.

The new policy, which administrators say is designed to reduce cyberbullying in the Lodi Unified School District, is a list of social media best practices for students and will replace the contract approved in March that said students could be punished for posts that administrators found offensive.

All students and their parents will be required to sign the new policy to indicate they have read the guidelines.

The board considered three similar versions of the guidelines and approved the third, which removed a paragraph detailing the school district’s authority to discipline students for online speech, whether on- or off-campus, provided administrators have a reasonable belief that the speech will cause “substantial disruption” or if the speech is lewd, vulgar or offensive.

“If something is brought to our school administrator’s attention that is cyber-bullying and creating a hostile environment at school for any student … any consequences the cyber-bully may receive will be within the scope of the administrator’s authority without infringing on anyone’s First Amendment rights,” Dawn Vetica, the district’s assistant superintendent of secondary education, said in an email. “It is our hope that parents review the guidelines with their students and there is a dialogue about posting things on social media.”

Under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, schools can punish students for on-campus speech if it is suspected of causing substantial disruption. The Tinker case involved only to on-campus speech; however, some courts have applied Tinker to off-campus speech either directed at or disruptive of the school.

Last month, LUSD suspended its previous social media policy to make revisions following repeated concerns from the community. Earlier, the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sent a letter to Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer and the board that said the policy’s wording made students’ ability to participate in extracurricular activities conditional on accepting a “draconian and constitutionally infirm” level of school control.

Zachary Denney, a staff writer on Bear Creek High School’s student newspaper, was one of the students who protested the original policy. He said the district did a good job with addressing students’ and parents’ concerns.

“We’re very happy there’s no longer a contract and the wording was no longer vague,” Denney said. “When they put this contract in place, they did it with the best intent … but they didn’t look at it clearly enough and see there were threats to our rights.”

Denney said he’s glad their efforts helped create positive change for the district and their fellow students.

“As of right now, I think our rights are fine. There really isn’t anything in the policy that could threaten us,” Denney said. “We have a solution, so we’re happy for that.”

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer. Contact Vicent by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.