Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Does the First Amendment protect students’ cyberspeech?

November 28, 2011 by Marc Brasof


What is the right balance between freedom of expression and censorship in schools? The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects a citizen’s right to speech, thought, and conscience against state control. For students, however, speech has been limited in order to ensure a safe learning environment. The U.S. Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O. held that “the rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.” Yet, Justice Abe Fortas reminds the public in Tinker that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” How does this same general standard apply to students’ speech in cyberspace?

Photo by Bartmoni via Wikimedia Commons

Social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and YouTube have made it simple for users to immediately publish content to connect and communicate with people all over the world. A recent report published by Pew Research Center reported that over 93% of teenagers go online and 73% of online teens use social networking sites. But the public is struggling to balance this newfound freedom of expression with the necessity to keep students safe. There is a growing plethora of cases regarding students’ use of social networking sites to bully others, publicly express their grievances about a particular teacher and/or grade, coordinate fights, set up accounts in order to pose as someone else, and publish lewd photos of themselves and others. These issues and others have led to the disruption of the school environment and, in some cases, teenage suicide.

On the other hand, social networking sites have led to a series of important developments for education. Social networking sites have become an avenue for connecting students from all over the globe, building relationships and communities faster and more effectively than any other medium. Social networking sites have been extremely useful for keeping students informed about current events and politics as well as encouraging and facilitating civic and political activism. Social networking sites have also become a channel for personal expression, making it possible to create positive self-images–a challenge for many teenagers.

In this new electronic world, what is the difference between inside and outside the “schoolhouse gates?”

The nature of online speech has refocused the debate over students’ protected speech at school, raising the question of whether school officials may discipline students for online speech published off-campus. In this new electronic world in which geographic boundaries are unclear, what is the difference between inside and outside the “schoolhouse gates?” The general rule that many courts have upheld in practice is that students can be disciplined for activities that happen outside of school if the school can prove the activities were disruptive or posed a danger, and that it was foreseeable the activities would find their way to campus. Some civil rights advocates worry about instances when out-of-school, online student behavior does not disrupt the learning environment and yet students are still censored, even reprimanded. What is the line between censoring disruptive behavior and protecting students’ fundamental right to freedom of expression? Do your school’s cyberspace policies strike the right balance between censorship and expression?

Where is the line between censoring disruptive behavior and preserving a student’s fundamental right to freedom of expression? Students themselves will debate the issue, face-to-face and online in a Nov. 30 Exchange program originating from the National Constitution Center @1pm. For more information about the program or take part in this on-line, click here


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