First Amendment Protection For Student Social Media – A Big Maybe!
I suspect most school systems realize that it is next to impossible to stop students from using the toolbox of options offered by the world of social media. But what if a student uses a MySpace page to mock a teacher or principal? Here’s a piece from wired.com that reports that the First Amendment is sitting at 2-1 in these types of cases. In the most recent decision, a federal trial court in Florida ruled that a school could not discipline a student for creating a Facebook page called “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!” Apparently the Facebook page featured a photo of Ms. Phelps and an invitation for other students to “express your feelings of hatred.” As the wired.com piece explains, the court found that the First Amendment trumped the school’s right to discipline. A student in Pennsylvania however was not so lucky. That student created a fake MySpace profile for her principal, and insinuated that the principal was a sex addict and a pedophile. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3d Circuit found in that case that the MySpace page created a classroom disruption – due to all the kids talking about it – and that permitted the school to impose discipline. Just a couple of thoughts. First, the First Amendment applies only to “state action” which means that only public school students have this protection. If a private school student did the same thing, there’d be no First Amendment protection if the school chose to discipline him. Second, students have mocked teachers since schools were invented. But the ability to spread the ridicule that social media offers also makes it more likely to get caught. And that makes it a challenge for the public schools no doubt.