Freedom of speech version 2.0

Can you imagine being suspended from school because of a comment you made on Twitter? Or dropped from a class for expressing your opinion on Facebook? These punishments might seem ludicrous to most, but students across the country have received similar sentences under the pretense of what school officials are considering libel.

Daily Trojan | Thomas Curry

The advent of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter has provided boundless forums for individuals to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech, but in the world of the classroom, where individual liberties are sometimes curtailed in order to maintain a functional learning environment, the Constitution’s application is called into question.

Courts have generally ruled that students and teachers maintain their constitutional rights both in and out of the classroom. In certain cases, however, judges have contested that, if a student’s conduct disrupts class work or threatens the rights of other students, that conduct is not protected by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

This logic is derived from the Latin phrase in loco parentis, which basically means that, while a student is in the school’s custody, the school acts as a parent; therefore, students are not granted all the liberties afforded to adults.

This theory probably held up in simpler times, but the opportunity to express ourselves is now quite literally at our fingertips through blogs, texts, status updates and Tweets. So how can schools restrict student expression with this proliferation of platforms to instantaneously transmit information?

Magistrate Judge Barry Garber sought to unpack this loaded question after Katherine Evans, a former student at Pembroke Pines Charter High School in Miami, Fla., was suspended after using her home computer to create a Facebook page that complained about one of her teachers. According to a CNN article, the page was titled, “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met,” along with a description that read, “To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, or simply knowing her and her insane antics: Here is the place to express your feelings of hatred.”

Peter Bayer, the school’s former principal, suspended Evans for three days for “disruptive behavior and cyber bullying of a staff member … and removed her from Advanced Placement classes and assigned her to regular classes,” according to the CNN report.

Garber, however, found that the student had a constitutional right to express her views on the social networking site, saying “Evans’ speech falls under the wide umbrella of protected speech. It was an opinion of a student about a teacher that was published off-campus … was not lewd, vulgar, threatening or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior.”

Like Katherine Evans, an anonymous USC student made a Facebook group to discuss a professor who hosted a Writing 140 seminar given at Bovard Auditorium earlier this month. The page mentions the teacher’s alleged curious behavior at the seminar and calls into question her state of mind while on stage, suggesting that she might have been under the influence of alcohol.

This professor received a bachelor’s from UCLA, doctorate from Harvard, has published two books and co-founded the USC Center for Law and Philosophy, yet more than 50 comments have been left on this Facebook page mocking her performance, suggesting she be fired and overall defaming her character. This fan page — or slam page, rather — would meet all the criteria of libel if the claims were false.

As far as the comments read, it appears many students who attended this seminar agree that this professor acted bizarrely. But should they be free to express that opinion?

One might argue that this freedom of expression contributes to a lack of respect in the classroom, which hinders the education of students. On the other hand, perhaps these social networks are a new branch in educational institutions that will in fact promote a more democratic learning environment.

Social media give students a voice against a larger bureaucracy — the university. The Facebook page created by USC students is an example of a check on the balance between student and teacher. Yes, students should respect their professors, but this respect should flow both ways.

As students, we pay a hefty price to receive an education from this university, and these social media sites give us an opportunity to collectively comment on whether or not we are getting our money’s worth.

Information published on social networking sites can sometimes blur the line between freedom of speech and libel.

Hopefully, the courts will continue to recognize that the Constitution is a living and breathing document, which must be looked at through a magnifying glass to reflect our ever-changing society — a society in which social media networks are a new form of free speech.

Sara Escalante is a senior majoring in political science.

  • Joe

    “The Constitution is a living and breathing document” is a code phrase that people use when they want to ignore or re-interpret the Constitution, and as Diane says, it isn’t necessary here. Free speech is free speech. However, I would remind you that the right to free speech is not a guarantee that you will have an audience, or a forum, or that you will be free of consequences for your speech. If the school in question is a public school, then there may be a Constitutional issue because it is effectively a government official punishing students for their speech. A university like USC should be free to create and enforce an “honor code” or something that does not allow public mockery of faculty and students. It’d be better for everyone if the rules were created in a transparent way and put into writing.

  • Diane

    The decision does not require one to view the Constitution as a “living, breathing document.” The precedent is already there. Free speech is free speech. Whether it comes out of your mouth or out of your keyboard is entirely irrelevant.