Shortly after the Nov. 6 election, the website Jezebel published a story showing tweets allegedly from teenagers who, through public Twitter accounts that included their names, schools and sports affiliations, used racial slurs to describe President Barack Obama.
The tweet “About time we get this monkey out of office #GoBackToTheZoo” came from a user Jezebel said was a Central York High School student.
Jezebel contacted the Central York School District, as well as school administrators for the other students named in its story. One Twitter user said he had told the school about the “racist tweet.” Another tweeted, “Wondering how @centralyorksd is reacting.”
But some experts say that a public school, for the most part, can’t do much about a student’s post on social media if it occurs after school hours, off campus. And it can be difficult to tell when a student crosses a line that allows a school district to intervene.
Jezebel didn’t say how it determined that tweet came from a Central York student. The Twitter account appears to have been taken over by another user.
Julie Romig, Central’s spokeswoman, said in an email that the district is aware of the situation raised in the Jezebel article. She said the district does not comment on individual student issues and referred to Central’s policies, but declined to comment otherwise.
Free speech issues
Central’s policies include one on student expression. It says students have the right to express themselves unless the expression is likely to substantially interfere with the educational process.
The policy says it fully governs on-campus expression, and governs off-campus and after-hours expression if it is determined to be unprotected, such as libel, and interferes with the educational process, threatens serious harm, encourages unlawful activity or interferes with another’s rights.
Ken Paulson, president and CEO of the First Amendment Center, said high school students have “significant free speech rights.”
“Public schools can only limit speech under very narrow circumstances,” he said.
Historically, public schools have been allowed to limit student speech when there is a likelihood of substantial disruption to the education process, he said.
Ten years ago, that wasn’t difficult to apply. If a student said something in the cafeteria that ended up being disruptive, he or she could be punished, he said.
When a student engages in provocative speech away from school grounds or on Facebook or Twitter, the same rules apply, he said.
“The question is does that comment in social media pose a significant threat to the operation of the school, is it likely to cause a significant disruption,” he said. “That’s what a court would look at.”
If a student posts a racially insensitive tweet online, he said, the school would have to ask whether it has jurisdiction over the student before it could impose a penalty. In a school with racial tension, he said, there’d be a stronger argument that a racial epithet could be punished.
The best path, he said, is for school officials to take note of the offensive post and see if they have enough media literacy in their curriculum.
“When a student tweets irresponsibly, that reflects on a lot of people beyond the student,” he said. “Both parents and schools have to ask whether they’re doing a proper job of explaining to students both the rights and responsibility of freedom of speech.”
In recent years, the Pennsylvania ACLU handled two cases involving students who created fake MySpace profiles mocking their principals. The U.S. Third Circuit Court eventually decided the schools had no authority to discipline the kids for speech that occurred off campus.
Nothing would prevent the school from contacting the child’s parents about it, however, or holding an assembly about racism, said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania ACLU.
The question is whether there are exceptions, he said. At a minimum, schools must be able to show that off-campus speech caused a material, substantial disruption in the school. The ACLU argues schools should have to do more than that, he said.
The law is still developing, he said, which is what the school districts involved the MySpace cases were hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would clarify. But the high court didn’t take the cases.
Walczak said he thinks the issue will eventually go to the Supreme Court in a bullying case.
“Kids are killing themselves out there because they’re being bullied,” he said. Both students and schools need clear lines in order to safeguard students from being bullied while still protecting free speech rights.
“There is a line that you will cross where it’s no longer protected free speech. That line at this point is unclear,” Walczak said. “Hopefully the Supreme Court will clarify that in the near future.”
Do schools monitor?
Jared Mader, director of technology for Red Lion Area School District, said he doesn’t think any administrators are at home on a Friday night trying to find students’ tweets.
“Most often when it comes up is when there is an issue,” he said. It hasn’t really happened in Red Lion, he said, but he’s seen other districts dealing with things like photos from parties that are posted online.
But districts face some challenges in investigating those issues.
“Everything we are required by law to be teaching … is that they should protect their privacy, what they are posting,” he said. But if there are accusations of bullying or threats, he said, that very privacy makes it difficult for the districts to look into it.
“It’s a double-edged sword, you can imagine,” he said.
Joshua Doll, assistant superintendent for Dallastown Area School District, said that the district does not police students’ social media sites.
But the district has a clear policy on bullying and cyberbullying and will get involved if something is brought to its attention and there’s a threat to another student or something that will have a negative impact on the school environment.
“We respect freedom of speech for our students, and there’s a clear divide between school day and private time,” Doll said. But there can be instances when a student steps over the line and the school has to get involved, he said.
Rona Kaufmann, superintendent of South Eastern School District, said social media is a hard thing to police.
If there’s a reason to intervene, such as a student reporting someone making threats, then the district would contact the school resource officer and involve parents, she said.
But if it’s not happening on school property, it’s outside the school’s purview, she said.
Mader said schools need the court systems to ensure they are ruling fairly and consistently, since case studies can differ and that’s where schools are looking to determine if their position is one defendable in court.
Several schools said they do have media literacy as a part of curriculum in order to educate students about their activity online.
Mader said that a stream of funding through the Federal Communications Commission requires districts to educate students about appropriate use of the internet and cyber security.
He met with librarians and guidance counselors from all levels to identify topics that were developmentally appropriate. At the elementary level, students might learn about sharing information, while at the senior level, students might talk about their digital footprint.
Those students are getting ready to go to college or be employed.
“How long has it been since they’ve investigated themselves on Google?” Mader said.
Doll said Dallastown slated a program through its library course for an evening last week for fourth through eighth grade, looking at what is appropriate online.
Students need to understand how to be good citizens and to understand that they’re responsible for their actions, he said.
“It’s an essential skill we need to promote,” he said.
Staff writer Teresa Boeckel contributed to this report.
Pennsylvania ACLU cases
The Pennsylvania ACLU handled two cases related to students speech rights online in recent years.
In Layshock vs. Hermitage School District, the school district suspended high school senior Justin Layshock for 10 days for creating a parody MySpace profile of his principal. He made the profile from a computer at his grandmother’s house, after school hours, according to a news release on the ACLU’s website.
In J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, the school district suspended a student for making a parody profile of her principal, according to the ACLU.
In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in favor of the students, saying that the schools could not punish the kids for off-campus speech that that does not create a substantial and material disruption inside the school, according to the ACLU.
Learn more at www.aclupa.org.
Free to Tweet contest
High school and college students can win one of five $5,000 scholarships during the Free to Tweet contest administered by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
From midnight Dec. 1 to 11:59 p.m. Dec. 15, students age 14 and up, at a high school, community college or university, can tweet their support for the First Amendment with the hashtag #FreeToTweet,” according to information on the contest website.
The contest is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and organized by 1 for All, an educational and public service campaign that builds understanding of the First Amendment and its five freedoms: speech, press, religion, assembly and petition, the website says.
“Our ‘Free to Tweet’ competition was an unprecedented celebration of the First Amendment, marrying emerging media to traditional American values,” Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and founder of the campaign, said in a news release on the website. “This year, we’re encouraging students nationwide to think about our most fundamental liberties and tweet about the First Amendment freedom that means the most to them.”
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