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How Much Free Speech Should Students Have?

Students are using the Internet to complain about teachers, principals and the schools they attend.  The vastness of the Internet and MySpace, Facebook and personal blogs permit students to vent about real or perceived complaints.

Some schools have taken have taken disciplinary steps against students posting critical content such as suspending students from the National Honor Society or banning the students from clubs or teams. There’s no question that attacks on principals and teachers are abrasive, degrading, racist, sexist, sophomoric and insulting, we tend to forget that students also have rights. Too often, adults seem to believe that you get handed the Bill of Rights along with your high school diploma; that’s not the case.

The issue of free speech in the schools seemed to be settled. In a landmark case in 1969, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment rights of public school students to wear black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. The high court asserted that young people have First Amendment rights, noting, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Short of a substantial disruption of school operations, the kids could have their say, the Supreme Court concluded.  The black armband has been supplanted by the Internet, a potent tool for information, education and character assassination.

The current law is murky, and might not be clear until the United States Supreme Court steps in.

The best legal path in these cases is to treat young people posting ugly and potentially defamatory content the way we would adults. If the content is illegal or threatening, charge them. If the content is libelous, sue them, as some teachers and principals have done. And if the content is neither criminal nor libelous, contact their parents.  While the Supreme Court has said that schools cannot suppress free speech, the Court has said nothing about parents metering out punishment.

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