Students’ Online Rights: Cyberspace’s Uncharted Territory

By Steve Helmeci
Jan. 7, 2013

PLUM BOROUGH, Pa. – Between Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging, students have at their fingertips a host of new ways to express themselves and to voice their grievances. However, the success of these different media serves to call into question the issue of what rights students have online.

From the streets of Cairo, Egypt, to nearby Plum Borough, Pennsylvania, students are exercising their right to protest what they deem unsatisfactory. When the recent Plum Senior High School Twitter campaign, #brownbagginit, trended in the local area, it resulted in the abandonment of the school-provided service for packed lunches by a majority of students.

While it is not apparent that any students suffered any punishment as a result of the Plum lunch boycott, punitive measures have been handed down across the country due to student online activism. However, such punishments are often appealed through the court system, and more often than not the courts have sided with the student.

For example, in Layshock vs. Hermitage School District, a Pennsylvania court upheld the First Amendment rights of a student who created a parody MySpace account of a school administrator. Even cases such as Tinker vs. Des Moines upheld the First Amendment rights of students.

Because of precedents set by various federal and state court cases, students have a fair amount of First Amendment protection under the law. While individual states have their own laws and precedents, an organization called the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) in Washington, D.C. is mandated to protect the First Amendment rights of students across the country.

According to Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the SPLC, Pennsylvania is a state where the courts have not come to a definitive ruling; therefore there is little in the way of precedent to protect students’ rights. However, “students should always appeal discipline [for matters regarding their rights] all the way up the chain of command,” LoMonte said. “Unless you threaten the school with violence, it should not materially and substantially effect the school day.”

Another point LoMonte made was that simply being annoying to a person or isolated incidents of rudeness online should not result in punitive measures being meted out by school staff. “It’s that person’s fault for bringing it to school if you’re only annoying them,” he said. While LoMonte does not condone online bullying, he does not think that simply embarrassing someone should result in punishment by the school.

In grade-level assemblies earlier this year at Mt. Lebanon High School, Unit Three Principal Mr. Peter Berg vaguely referenced a policy regarding punishment for the activities of students on online social networking sites. The brief overview left Mt. Lebanon students wondering exactly what was acceptable online and what sort of disciplinary action the school could take regarding online social networking.

One of the points of contention for students was whether or not school administrators had the right to visit students’ private social networking pages.

“We don’t,” Principal Berg said. “Let me clarify that. The school is never in the position to go out and look at students’ private Facebook pages, so the notion that any of the unit principals here are generally getting on your pages and looking at them, that’s not accurate.”

While school officials have the right to act on issues deemed outside the protection of the First Amendment, such as harassment or assault, they never become involved in online incidents unless they are handed a hard copy or print-out of the issue at hand, according to Berg.

Even then, the school is not always in a position to address the issue. “The bullying policy is very explicit about what we can follow up on,” Berg said. “The policy talks about behaviors that are severe or persistent in nature and that fall under harassment.”

School administrators operate on the basis of reasonable cause. While it is a far lower standard than law enforcement’s probable cause, school officials cannot enter private social networking sites for any reason, even in the case of a tip to administrators about illicit online activity. “[A student] coming in as a hearsay person saying this is happening on Facebook doesn’t help me,” Berg said. “At that point I’d say bring it to me, and when the hard copy is sitting in front of me I’d have a chance to read it, interpret it, and to make some subjective judgments about the persistence, severity, pervasiveness, and if this is really impacting the school environment.”

Another point of confusion was the language “interferes with the educational process” regarding illicit student expression. This language was used during the grade level assemblies and is in the student handbook as well.

“It has to be significant,” Berg said. Unless a situation is deemed persistent and pervasive, the school cannot and will not act against students.

Students should be aware, however, that while the school is relatively unable to act with regards to goings-on outside of school, administrators have more access to information shared with the school’s network and wifi because they have oversight.

In reality, there are not too many differences between the policy of the school and the SPLC. The main point of contention is the grey area created by the lack of precedent law that exists when it comes to social media issues. The school will often side with the distressed student, while the SPLC will more often than not side with the student who is arguing for their First Amendment rights.

Teenagers in Uzbekistan Urge Water Conservation

By Khilola Kozubaeva, Maftuna Ibragimova
August 06, 2009

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FERGHANA, Uzbekistan – The Aral Sea borders two countries, Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south. The government of Uzbekistan has taken steps to preserve the shrinking sea, including water management policies and conservation technologies. It is also participating in the International Fund for Saving Aral Sea, whose other members are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan.

And teenagers in the Ferghana region of Uzbekistan are pushing for better ways to irrigate crops and to conserve the use of water in their houses.

“In Uzbekistan, the shortage of water is not so appreciable as in Africa and Asia, but that does not mean that we are allowed to use the water unreasonably,” said Mokhichekhra Maripova, 17. Maripova said she uses less water to brush her teeth or take showers “than others who can’t understand that water is not endless.”

“It’s our duty to introduce to the youth this idea because we are all responsible for nature, for our descendants, for history,” she said.

“Our generation should be more attentive to environmental problems,” said Mirzoakbarshokh Akhmedov, 16. “We should find new methods of irrigation that use less water. We can increase renewable water resources, if each person would just make an effort.”

For example, Akhmedov said he uses water from a nearby brook to irrigate his garden, rather than using tap water (see video below).

The drying up of the Aral Sea has had serious health effects on the surrounding communities. As the waters disappear, they leave behind sulfates that become airborne during the sand and dust storms that have become more frequent and stronger. According to the Republic of Uzbekistan, almost 80 percent of the children under 11 who live in the Syrdarya River delta suffer from eye illnesses and respiratory diseases. 

By 1993, some 75 million metric tons of dust and salt had been dumped on surrounding lands, killing vegetation and cattle. Salts from the Aral Sea have even been traced as far away as Belarus, over 1,000 kilometers to the northwest, according to PeopleandPlanet.net, an online portal for environmental and health news.

The country’s media are filled with public service announcements urging residents to conserve water. Uzbekistan, as the country with the larger population, consumes more than 50 percent of the water in Central Asian rivers. However, more than 85 percent of that water originates in other countries, particularly in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Close to 94 percent of Uzbekistan’s water supply is used for farming and 2 percent for industrial purposes. Most of the country’s population live in rural areas that are dependent on farming.

Looking for the Ultimate Ride? Try Your Nearest Desert

By Ans Khurram
July 04, 2009

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MUSCAT, Oman – Looking for a new vacation site? How about trying your nearest desert for some dune bashing, which involves driving 4x4s SUVs over 30-80-feet-high sand dunes at around 50-60 km/h?

Dune bashing has become one the most popular activities that people in the Middle East plan over weekends and holidays. I was in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates when I got a chance to to go for a desert safari. (In Oman, the premier location is the Wahiba Sands.)

“It’s an amazing ride. The adrenaline rush one gets during the drops is unparalleled,” said Mark Stein, a 35-year-old accountant who had traveled from New Zealand to go on a desert safari. “I was sitting on the front seat and mind you there can’t be many scarier scenarios than to see a vehicle going into a nosedive,” said Ali Cheeda, a 22-year-old Pakistani engineer.

Dune bashing requires a lot of skill as, maneuvering in these sandy terrains is easier said than done. There are also strict safety standards that need to be followed. When our ride began, our driver, Nair Sidhu, first reduced the tire pressure. “This is done to improve traction on the sands,” Sidhu explained.

He said that he been driving tourists out for desert safaris for five years and was passionate about it. He had been specially trained to drive on these terrains. “The vehicles are equipped with roll cages to prevent the roof from denting inwards into passengers in case the vehicle turns over,” he said. We were asked to put on our seat belts before we started. “Unless you want your head sticking out of the roof,” Sidhu said, grinning.

“It’s an insult to be driving one of these 4x4s on asphalt roads,” said my cousin, Salman Jameel, who drives a sedan. “Their power is incredible.”

Another safety procedure is that dune bashing is always done in a group. This way, a single 4×4 car does not get lost, and in case a vehicle break downs, other drivers can help.

While dune bashing usually is the star attraction of a desert safari, it can also include sand skiing, hennaing (temporary tattoos using a dye made from a plant) and other activities. “In the evening and overnight safari packages, dune bashing is accompanied by traditional barbecues served with classic Arabic coffee to make it a true Arabian Night,” said Sidharth Basu from the Desert Safari Dubai agency.

People of all ages enjoy the experience. “I want more,” was all a 10-year-old member of our group screamed. “It was amazing to see the sand spraying on the window as if we were driving through water,” said Jane Townsend, a teacher in her 40s from Britain.

Dune bashing is, however, not for everyone. People who get carsick are advised to stay away. “We do not recommend anyone below the age of three to take part in dune bashing” said Basu. “The same goes for pregnant women.”

“It’s a great tourist puller. We will pick you up from your hotel or wherever you reside in Dubai. You can go for a desert safari either in the morning or evening. If you are a little bit more adventurous, we also offer packages that include night stays in the desert,” he said. “And for people who would rather just enjoy the desert rather then bumping around in it, we have packages which do not include dune bashing.”Plenty of tourism agencies offer a variety of packages, with prices ranging from $40 to $60 depending on the expedition type.

According to a recent study on tourism effects, dune bashing barely has any environmental effects because the deserts in Middle East are sandy and therefore there is no plant life to damage. However, the report, “The Ecology of Transportation: Managing Mobility for the Environment,” states that CO2 emissions and sound pollution do remain a concern.

After the ride, we were taken to a camp where the aroma of barbequed chicken and freshly baked khoobs (traditional Arabic bread) made our mouths water. “The barbecue under the stars in the middle of a desert is a fine example of the famous Arabian hospitality. I enjoyed a truly unique cultural experience. The Arabic salads and sweets were delicious,” said Rabi Al-Saleh, who had come from nearby Saudi Arabia.

So, if you are planning to visit the Middle East, the desert and dune bashing are just around the corner.