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.