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Will the Internet limit free speech for students? - The LAMP

Will the Internet limit free speech for students?

By December 15, 2008 News No Comments

How far should freedom of speech and the press extend, anyway? It’s a question that keeps coming up in this country whenever we develop new ways to communicate.

The First Amendment to our Constitution was written when speech and print were the predominant means available for political and social discourse. But as each new communication technology–first broadcasting and now the Internet and other digital means–has developed, we take another look at what freedom of speech and the press ought to mean when a new environment for discourse is created. Whose rights should be curbed, and under what circumstances? Underpinning these new inquiries is a fear of the social implications of the new communication technology/environment,especially where young people are concerned. How can we control them?

The Philadelphia Inquirer just reported that the Hermitage School District in western Pennsylvania is appealing a judge’s decision that a high school student had not violated a school’s civility code by things he posted in a MySpace profile. The profile, first posted in 2006, was bogus. It was a parody profile that the student, Justin Layshock, made up, attaching his high school principal’s name and image. The student was making fun of his principal, and was, according to the attorney representing the district, being vulgar about it, thus violating the school’s civility code.

The school district wrought heavy discipline on Justin who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a suit Justin’s parents brought against the school district. That judge ruled in favor of the student, and now the decision is under appeal in a Federal Appeals Court in Philadelphia.

Without going into all of the details here, it seems the Appeals Court will uphold the first judge’s ruling. What I really mean to say is, if I were a judge hearing the appeal, I’d uphold the decision. Why? Because the comments were made on MySpace and, as the first judge declared, that’s not in school, and it’s out of the jurisdiction of school.

Now, there could possibly be a libel case in there, if the principal could sufficiently prove malice, irreparable harm to his reputation, and a host of other things, but this was a case about a student saying something kind of nasty about a school authority figure—which happens all the time. Except this time it was on a social networking site where young people post lots of things that they used to just say to each other face to face or on the telephone. And it wasn’t posted on a school computer, using a school’s server. It was away from school, on his grandmother’s computer, no less.

Understandably, the whole incident is upsetting to the principal and other school figures, and probably lots of other people. But the big issue here is preserving freedom of speech. Even if it’s not pleasant speech, and even if it’s speech by a minor who probably deserves some kind of reprimand.

Maybe the reprimand could come by way of giving this young person—and all young people—a better understanding of the ramifications of speech on the Internet, particularly via social networking sites. Who wants to go through all of this kind of legal wrangling, anyway?

Instead of fearing this medium, these social networking sites, it’s best to take a breath, accept that we, all of us who use the Internet for a host of things everyday, are part of a new communication environment. And it’s challenging us while it’s changing us. That’s what environments do. We’re being shaped and it’s sometimes frightening, and we want to protect young people from this thing we don’t understand.

It’s best to offer measured guidance about wise uses of social networking sites—maybe uses that aren’t depraved. But let’s not censor anyone anew just because of the new means of communicating. And let’s listen to those—many of them students–who use the sites without fear. We can probably learn a lot from each other.

–Katherine Fry, Ph.D., LAMP Education Director