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Where Does Free Speech for Students End?

Now that the fall semester has begun, schools will be faced with deciding where to draw the line on their students' right of free speech on the Internet. I'm not talking now about student-on-student cyberbullying, which is outlawed by nearly every state. Instead I'm referring to postings that slander teachers.

Recognizing the harm done to the reputation of teachers, North Carolina has made comments that "intimidate or torment" teachers a misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $1,000 and/or probation ("Teachers Fight Online Slams," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 18). Critics maintain that the law infringes on the free speech rights of students. But every right has a commensurate responsibility. I have no objection to students posting their comments about their teachers as long as they do so in the same way that reviewers write about books. That means no ad hominem remarks. For example, if a student writes that Mr. X is a bad teacher because his lessons are confusing, I see no reason why that opinion should pose a problem. On the other hand, if a student writes that Mr. X is doing drugs because his lessons are confusing, that's a different story.

There was a time when the issue was more clear cut. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that students do not shed their right to free speech at the schoolhouse door. In other words, the right is protected on campus unless officials can show that the speech caused a significant disruption to school activities or violated the rights of others. What took place off campus, however, was seemingly immune. For example, at the height of the Vietnam protests, students on the staff of The Warrior, the newspaper at the high school where I taught, attempted to publish an editorial criticizing the administration's policy about controversial issues. The principal forbade it. To get around the ban, the same students put out a newspaper off campus titled The Worrier, and distributed it to students and faculty before they stepped on school grounds.

School newspapers, unlike the Internet, are relatively easy to monitor and control because of their physical presence. For example, a principal at a high school near St. Louis deleted two pages of the student newspaper because he objected to articles about pregnancy and divorce. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier affirmed his right to do so ("Unmuzzling High School Journalists," The Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2008). The high court's decision did not overturn Tinker, but it certainly muddied it. I say that because I fail to see how articles about pregnancy and divorce can cause a significant disruption to school activities.

But the existence of the Internet makes standards impossible to enforce. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court eventually accepts the opportunity to rule on the issue and holds in favor of schools to protect teachers, I don't see how students who post anonymously can be muzzled. As the Internet grows in importance as the way young people communicate, I think the only realistic way of preventing teacher disparagement is by teaching students about their responsibilities. The process begins at home. It will be a daunting task because doing so requires imbuing them with fairness and judgment, two qualities that are in short supply among the members of today's generation.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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