Speech Dilemma

July 25, 2012

The student may not have been at school. Even so, his foul-mouthed message could not be ignored, Chris Payne decided."We had one instance where the student had been suspended and he Tweeted, ‘f*** you, TPS, I’m taking the week off’ or something like that," Payne, director of public information for Tulsa Public Schools, wrote in an email.As part of his job, Payne monitors social networks to tap into discussion about Tulsa Public Schools.It’s a way to gauge community sentiment about school initiatives. This time, he spotted the profanity from a student."These things are all a judgment call," Payne said in an interview.Ultimately, he informed the high school principal at the student’s school about the message; Payne said he doesn’t know if it led to any further punishment.These sort of student comments — public posts on social networking platforms — can lead to headaches for administrators, though Payne said he’s only aware of the one Tweet that called for at least potential district follow up. School administrators at all levels must balance the need to maintain order with a desire to allow free expression, while free speech advocates push against some policies as restrictive without reason."Schools have, I think, a legitimate interest in limiting a student’s use of social media networks while the students are in school," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. However, "if that student is making those statements outside of school, I think the school district can have a difficult case to make to discipline that individual."Kiesel said his group has received about a half-dozen complaints over the last year or so related to crackdowns on student speech, including one case in Tahlequah where school officials sought to prevent a student from flying the Confederate battle flag from his truck."Sometimes we’ve found ourselves visiting with school officials and working with them to ensure that the application of their school policy meets with what’s required of them," Kiesel said, referring to free speech protections built into the Constitution’s First Amendment.Kiesel noted that courts have ruled that student speech should generally be protected, describing a case from the 1960s in which the Supreme Court upheld the rights of Iowa students to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school, despite a ban on the armbands by school officials.Basically, the courts ruled that a school can’t simply assert that speech is disruptive, but must do more to prove its concerns are valid. In the Tahlequah case, "what we asked the school there was to identify specific instances of how that speech was disruptive," Kiesel said, adding that he was satisfied with the district’s response.It’s an issue that extends to colleges and universities. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education critiques policies at various college campuses. The group gives the University of Tulsa, for example, a "red light" rating, claiming that the school’s harassment policy "clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech."Robert Shibley, senior vice president for the foundation, commonly known as The FIRE, took issue with the part of the policy that defines demeaning conduct as harassment."People say demeaning things," said Shibley, adding that even politics involves a lot of demeaning comments.The university noted through a spokesman that it had no discipline records in the last two years related to violations of student speech codes, however.Rick Shipley, chief of staff for TU’s Student Association, defended the school’s policies."I took a look at the FIRE’s comments, and I respectfully disagree with their criticisms," Shipley wrote."According to The University of Tulsa’s mission statement we are a private, independent institution that values a ‘dedication to free inquiry,’ (emphasis mine) so complying with the freedoms outlined in our nation’s constitution is certainly of utmost importance." Tawny Taylor, assistant director for TU’s Center for Student Academic Support, formerly served as chief conduct officer for Oklahoma State University in Stillwater."Sometimes students would complain about something that someone had said to them that was just offensive or making them feel upset, and they might think it would have been actionable," said Taylor. "But it might have been protected speech."Taylor helped write a guide for school administrators on how to handle issues related to online speech, a chapter in a book titled Misbehavior Online in Higher Education."Attempting to make rules that require students to be civil, respectful, tolerant, or otherwise chill the freedom of expression invites legal challenge, especially for public institutions, and is not generally an advisable end," Taylor and her fellow authors, Lee Bird and Kevin Kraft, concluded.Public universities generally are considered extensions of the government and thus have more of an obligation to protect free speech, but private colleges may be vulnerable to civil lawsuits if students feel promises to allow freedom of expression aren’t followed, the authors wrote.In an interview, Taylor said online conduct is a hot topic among school administrators."I think the important thing is that you don’t need to really distinguish Internet speech from other types of speech, but you want your policies to be sure that they cover that," Taylor said. She added: "You really do kind of have to judge things on a case by case basis. With speech, a lot of different things can come into play."Payne said the district consulted with attorneys last fall on the topic of online speech and social media."I really want to revisit this with" school board members, said Payne. With the complexities related to social media use by students and teachers, "I really do think we need a social media policy," Payne said.At Union Public Schools, Todd Borland, the district’s director of technology, said officials don’t monitor student social media accounts, noting in an email that "we do not own any software that could automate this process."Borland wrote that "if the "tweet" or "post" is something that would cause significant disruption determined by our past experience, then we would intervene to eliminate that disruption." He added that "we have found that most of the time, simply communicating with the student and their parents about the issue tends to resolve the issue."As far as posts made from home, "We have yet to take action against a student for any speech done at home," Borland wrote.