Remember when Marcia Brady was accused of drawing a comical picture of her English teacher Mrs. Denton? The school punished her with one-week detention, and it almost cost her the big slumber party. Well, it's no longer a Brady world. According to some recent court opinions, even school principals are fair game for ridicule and worse, as long as you do it outside of school. They said that students could not be punished for slamming their school principals on MySpace pages, when the students used their own computers at home.
In one case, some middle schoolers created a fake MySpace profile of the school principal. Though they didn't use the principal's name, the profile had his picture, and appeared to be a self-portrayal of a middle-school principal. It contained vulgar language and sexual content; including serious, personal accusations involving sexual misconduct. The school--no surprise--wanted to discipline the students. They had used his actual photo and undermined him in all kinds of serious ways.
But the court said the MySpace profile was so over-the-top, that no one would really believe it was the principal's actual MySpace profile, and no one would take any of the accusations seriously. Most significantly, though, the profile was created outside of school, on a home computer. And so it was considered speech that was protected by the First Amendment; meaning the school couldn't punish the students for their expressions, regardless of how inappropriate.
The courts didn't want to be reaching into the students' homes and controlling what they do in their free time, even when it relates to school. Unless there is a real need to protect the school environment, they would choose to protect the kids' freedom of expression at home instead.
Not that schools could never punish students for what they say and do after school. Perhaps if they had called for fellow students to take some action that would disrupt the school environment or hurt the principal, then the school could discipline them. In this case there was nothing that was necessarily disruptive of school.
Critics of these court decisions would say that the effects of allowing personal attacks on school personnel are much more harmful to the schools. They undermine authority, and communicate to students that it's acceptable to personally target teachers and administrators in very inappropriate ways.
It's called "MySpace" but it's anything but your own personal space. Facebook and MySpace are social forums that can take ridicule to a whole new extreme level. Gone are the days when you would just pass notes in class when the teacher was writing on the chalkboard. Now, with a few clicks, a large portion of the student body can be in on the "joke."
But if you listen to the message that's being sent to teens in cyberspace...if you're sitting in front of your computer at home, even your principal is fair game for outrageous, inappropriate, online slams.
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