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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Social Networking and Freedom of Speech: A Good Combination?

By Peter DeWitt — November 04, 2012 4 min read
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Those people posting negative comments on Facebook were negative before Facebook ever started. Facebook just allowed them the venue to spew negativity.

What has happened to common sense? Has Facebook and Twitter created a negative tone in society? Or was there a portion of society that was already negative and social networking gave them the venue to share their thoughts? Too many educators cite negative comments as the reason they do not dive into social networking and the following story is an example of using social networking for the wrong reasons.

Recently Teach.com posted a blog entitled Teacher Suspended for Inappropriate Facebook Posts. The teacher from the Memphis City School District allegedly posted the following comments after two of her kindergarten students had a fight in her class. Yes, you read that correctly. Two of her kindergarten students had a fight. “How bout I blasted both of them. The girl in my class hair is nappy almost every day and the boy wears dirty clothes, face nasty and can’t even read. They didn’t bother nobody else when I got through with them.”

Clearly, this is an extreme example of a teacher who made unprofessional and abusive comments about her students even though she was friends with parents on Facebook. This is, hopefully, the exception and not the rule. However, it does lead to the bigger discussion that involves social media and freedom of speech.

One of the reasons educators do not get involved with social media is that they are afraid of what would happened when they put their thoughts in writing. They are afraid that their words will be misconstrued. They worry what will happen when their words are out there. It’s painfully obvious to see that the teacher that posted the above comments didn’t have that same concern.

Freedom of Speech
Most times when people get in trouble for saying something unprofessional or uncivil they go directly to their Freedom of Speech as a way to defend themselves. Everyone in America has it and they should. It provides us the freedom to speak up and speak out. It gives me the right to write this blog. However, freedom of speech doesn’t mean people won’t have consequences.

The Teach.com blog stated, “While parents are urging for the district to fire Gatewood, the district does not have a social media policy in place.” It shouldn’t take a social media policy to come to the conclusion that the teacher’s comments about children who are five years-old were unprofessional and abusive. Millions of teachers do an amazing job in the classroom and would never write those comments on their Facebook page or on Twitter.

Having freedom of speech doesn’t, or shouldn’t, give people the right to say abusive things about children. Sure, they can put it out there but they should have consequences for doing so. Perhaps I’m sensitive to the issue because I believe that as educators we should take the high road when it comes to our students. It’s not that I have not seen abusive comments. I have been on the receiving end of hateful comments from anonymous blogs where people believe they have the freedom of speech but didn’t have the courage to sign their name.

How This Affects Social Networking
For most educators, social networking isn’t about saying hurtful things about students; it’s about connecting with other educators. They take the time to chat through Twitter and share ideas. They share blogs and researched based articles. They have debates and get a better understanding of the view from the other side.

Twitter has become a very powerful venue for educators to share. It has brought millions of teachers and administrators from all around the world together. It is helping educators send a unifying message about the harmful effects of high stakes testing, and it has helped millions find their voice to combat policymakers and politicians who know very little about public education.

With other social networking sites like Facebook, people like to share funny stories and connect with friends and family they do not see often enough. Those who have not gone on Facebook are scared that it’s about posting negative comments. Facebook hasn’t allowed people to become negative. Those people posting negative comments on Facebook were negative before Facebook ever started. Facebook just allowed them the venue to spew negativity. If you don’t want to read their comments, just don’t become friends with them in the first place.

In the End
Adults have a habit of stating that our students do not know how to use social networking. They use it to bully other students or play pranks. Although this is true in some cases, some adults are not doing a bang-up job in that department either. Social networking is about sharing ideas, creating PLN’s and connecting with family and friends.

If we truly want students to understand the power of freedom of speech, we should be role models for why it is good, not poster children for why it is bad. Whether educators think it’s fair or not, they are under a spotlight and are held to a higher standard. They should be because they are educators and it is a noble profession. If we want others to believe that, we should act accordingly.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.