In a post I wrote yesterday, a blogger offered 12 cons for using social media in schools, one of which was the risk of cyberbullying. One thing her post didn’t mention is that cyberbullying can be difficult to pin down—so there’s an accompanying “con” that schools have to navigate the murky waters of online speech.
A recent story illustrated the difficulty here. According to California Watch, three high school students in San Francisco were recently suspended for comments they wrote on a Tumblr page called “Scumbag Teachers.” But some local civil rights groups got wind of the case and the students have since since been exonerated.
The principal of George Washington High School in the San Francisco Unified School District accused the students of cyberbullying after a teacher found out about postings on the site. California Watch reports, “Some of the comments allegedly linked to the students included: ‘Teaches Pink Floyd for 3 Weeks; Makes Final Project Due In 3 Days’ and ‘Nags Student Govt About Being On Task; Lags On Everything.’” In addition to being suspended for three days, students were banned from going to prom and graduation, and one student was removed from the student council.
The Asian Law Caucus and ACLU of Northern California contacted the district in support of the students. Linda Lye, an attorney with the ACLU, argued that the comments didn’t meet the definition of cyberbullying and weren’t disruptive to the school. “Speech does not become ‘disruptive’ just because a teacher doesn’t like it or finds it offensive,” she wrote on the ACLU website. “In fact, criticism of authority figures is exactly the type of speech the Constitution was designed to protect.”
Students wrote some compelling arguments for their peers on other Tumblr sites. One student referenced the irony of having just studied Brave New World and 1984 in school—both of which are “dystopian novels” about societies in which “individual opinions are banned and people live in an authoritarian rule stripped of freedom and self-expression.”
Gentle Blythe, spokeswoman for the district, said the students were reinstated and their records cleared after they heard from the civil rights groups. She wrote in an email to California Watch: “We absolutely recognize and value our students’ right to free speech. We also recognize that we need to educate them about responsible speech. ... As soon as the district was notified of the school administration’s action, we responded. Part of having authority means recognizing that if you make a mistake you need to correct it.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.