Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Free Speech or Online Harassment?

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to give schools guidance on where to draw the line between a student's free speech rights and online harassment. Litigants asked the Court to review decisions in three cases involving Internet speech that came to different results. Two cases involved students using the Internet to ridicule their principals, and the third case involved student-on-student online harassment.

By denying review, the Court let stand two lower court decisions that First Amendment free speech rights trump the schools' right to punish students for using social media to make derogatory statements about their principals.  And the third decision will stand upholding a school's right to suspend a student for online harassment of another student.

Free speech rights were protected where one student portrayed her middle school principal as a "hairy sex addict" and a pedophile because the claims were too outrageous to be taken seriously. In the second case, a student posted comments about a high school principal, calling him a "big steroid freak" and a drunk, but, since the student's online comments did not cause substantial disruption at school, they could not be punished by school administrators.

However, in the third case, free speech rights did not prevent a student's punishment for creating a website where she posted hateful comments about another student.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that her "particularly mean-spirited and hateful" conduct violated school anti-bullying policies that were necessary to preserve a safe educational environment at school.

The Internet has provided an especially virulent means to bully and harass, and the Court missed an opportunity to provide school administrators with valuable insight on how to navigate these troubled waters.