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Free Speech for Students on the Internet: Part II - The LAMP

Free Speech for Students on the Internet: Part II

By February 17, 2009 News No Comments

First, Justin Layshock was suspended after taking to MySpace and making a fake profile for his high school principal. Layshock’s family successfully sued the school district after the court ruled that his First Amendment rights had been violated; in effect, designating the Internet as a space where speech, even by students, is protected.

Now, a Florida student by the name of Katherine Evans is facing a similar predicament. Evans was suspended from her school for an alleged crime of cyberbullying after posting a rant about her English teacher, Sarah Phelps, on Facebook. But while Evans’ case is similar to Layshock’s, in many ways, it is even more outrageous.

According to The New York Times, Evans’ rant was triggered by her frustrations with Phelps for “ignoring her pleas for help with assignments and a brusque reproach when she missed class to attend a school blood drive.” She posted a short message on Facebook—a little heavy-handed but no worse than a complaint aired over lunch with some friends:

To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, or simply knowing her and her insane antics: Here is the place to express your feelings of hatred.

The response was minimal, and mixed; some students agreed with Evans, some defended Phelps. Evans removed the post after a few days, only to be notified two months later of her suspension. Now she is suing the school district to remove the offense removed from her record.

This whole episode reminds me of Gossip Girl, the CW’s hit show all about a group of ridiculously good-looking high schoolers at an elite Manhattan private school. The show is not only arguably one of the best teen dramas to ever grace our airwaves, but it also deals pretty explicitly with the issue of cyberbullying—after all, the show’s titular character is the author of a snarky blog that chronicles the lives of our favorite Upper East Siders, which fuels much of the show’s drama.

Case in point, the most recent story arch: a naive young teacher defies Blair Waldorf, a rich, powerful, and villainous brunette,by giving her poor marks on her English paper. Enraged by the grade, Blair declares war on Ms. Carr and sends a tip to Gossip Girl, accusing Ms. Carr of having an inappropriate relationship with a student (who also happens to be Blair’s best friend’s boyfriend, but that’s not really relevant here). After being turned in by one of her friends, Blair is expelled, her early admission at Yale revoked.

The point here is this: Blair falsely accused her teacher of something illegal with the intention of getting her fired. By all accounts, that qualifies as slander, whether she is saying it in a crowded lunchroom, printing it in a newspaper, or, yes, even writing it on a blog on the Internet. But Evans’ Facebook post made no allegations against Phelps, nor was her impetus for the rant malicious. In fact, it was completely reasonable. As a student, Evans felt neglected by her teacher and had every right to air her grievances. Expressing “feelings of hatred” was hyperbole at best, and tasteless at worst, but in either case, it certainly did not violate the school’s rules “against threats of physical violence, verbal threats, nonverbal assaults and disruption of the school’s function” that assistant director of the school district Pamela Brown noted in her interview with the NYT. What happened here wasn’t an incident of cyberbullying—it was hardly an incident of bullying at all.

The case here seems simple to me: Katherine Evans never should have been suspended. Add to that the fact that she’s only suing for a clean record and attorney’s fees—no monetary compensation—and the answer is clear. It doesn’t take Gossip Girl to solve this mystery.