MSNBC Covers Threats to Student Speech Online, Quotes FIRE

By on October 6, 2009

Cable news network MSNBC details the growing threat to online student speech today in an article published on the network’s website. Quoting FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley, MSNBC reporter Helen A. S. Popkin examines how "the First Amendment rights of Internet-savvy students are under fire" when it comes to posting criticism of their schools online.

Popkin’s article canvasses some recent cases involving high school students punished for publishing critical or dissenting speech on popular social networking sites like Facebook. Popkin notes that while "proclaiming the suckitude of one’s school is an ancient rite of passage," the fact that more and more of these critiques are now publicly available online has prompted a surge in litigation between "disgruntled students and the schools that punish them."

Popkin quotes Robert to explain how court rulings affecting high school students’ online speech rights can pose a danger to the rights of college students:

The Internet "is bringing up things we used to say verbally, that’s now searchable and online," says Robert L. Shibley, vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). While FIRE advocates for university students, who have significantly more rights than high school students, Shibley notes the slippery slope between the two education levels.

It is not unusual, Shibley says, for a university to note a precedent set for high school students and First Amendment rights and attempt to apply that precedent to people old enough "to fight in a war, vote and drink."

"You have sort of an Orwellian atmosphere at universities, and especially at high schools, Shibley says. "Administrators feel they have to tamp down (online speech) or somebody going to sue the high school."

"It’s a big mess, and it’s just coming out everywhere."

FIRE has long warned about the problems presented by punishing students for online speech. In 2007, Greg and I wrote an article for The Boston Phoenix covering some of the Facebook cases FIRE has faced, and expressing our concerns about the battle for free speech now being waged online. In a similar vein, former FIRE Jackson Legal Fellow Kelly Sarabyn penned an excellent overview of the more recent FIRE cases involving online speech in December of last year.

Daily Torch readers will note that this is the second time in as many days that MSNBC had turned to FIRE’s student-rights expertise to augment their analysis. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff appeared on the network yesterday to discuss the danger of overregulating student life.