Ed-Tech Policy

Facebook Page Trouble in Ind. Sparks First Amendment Discussion

By Jerod Clapp, The Evening News & Tribune, Ind. (MCT) — June 10, 2011 5 min read

A Facebook page and some T-shirts aimed at getting a laugh got some students at Jeffersonville High School in a bit of trouble Tuesday.

Ben Hooper, a senior at the school, started a page with another student, Brian Fisher, on Facebook called “You Know You Go To Jeff High If ...” modeled after comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s comedy routine, “You Might Be a Redneck If ...”

Hooper said he thought if he was going to get in trouble for the two-month-old site, it would have happened sooner.

“From the beginning, I thought something might happen,” Hooper said. “That was two months ago. I didn’t think it would happen at the end of the school year.”

Along with the site, they started selling T-shirts with some of their favorite sayings left by students, including “ISAP: I’m Sitting Around Pointlessly” and “Your Janitor Wears Jordans.”

Hooper said they sold about 60 shirts, but stopped selling them after that.

Fisher declined to comment on the issue and said everything was being handled by JHS Principal James Sexton.

Sexton said the T-shirts and site seemed to focus on negative aspects of the school, which he said could be detrimental to the learning environment.

“I know some of the statements on those shirts come from this school and some students find them humorous,” Sexton said. “But they’re disruptive to others and can cause some friction.”

Fisher, Hooper and their parents were called to a meeting with Sexton to talk about taking the site down. Hooper said they originally agreed to take the site down, but later decided to keep it online.

Hooper said he and Fisher were given detention Wednesday afternoon by assistant principal and teacher Wes Wisner.

Sexton said he wasn’t aware of any punishment issued to the students as of Wednesday afternoon.

Hooper said during his fifth period class on Wednesday, he was called to the school’s office and was told he no longer had to serve detention.

A protest was originally scheduled for 2:30 Wednesday afternoon in the school’s cafeteria, but was called off after Hooper posted on the page that he no longer had to serve detention.

Hooper said he didn’t think the shirts were derogatory to the school or disruptive in class. He said a lot of people on campus got a good laugh from the site and shirts.

“I think it’s more comical than anything,” Hooper said. “There are some teachers who smile and laugh at them.”

But Sexton said he doesn’t think the comments were that funny.

“This was started by two students who thought it was funny and they’re technologically savvy,” Sexton said. “But sometimes, other people are bothered by what you print or say in life.”

Hooper said the site was primarily operated outside of school, mostly on his own time off campus. With firewalls and other security measures in place within the school’s walls, students can’t access social networking sites using the school’s computers.

But they do have another avenue and Sexton said he doesn’t limit that as much as other schools might.

“I’m an administrator that knows for those who are still trying to block 1/8websites3/8 in schools, it’s impossible,” Sexton said. “It happens whether you want it to happen or not. I know there are some schools that have steadfast rules on keeping phones in lockers and that’s not happening.”

Sexton said he realizes students are going to use cell phones and smart phones at school, so his policy allows students to use them between classes and during lunch on school property.

The Legal Side

Students and parents got on the Facebook page to discuss what they thought was a violation of the students’ rights to voice their opinions about their school.

Hooper said he was surprised at the response after he posted he was getting punished.

“In the first couple of hours I posted I’d be getting detention, the page just blew up,” Hooper said. “I had support from students and parents of students.”

A decision made by the Supreme Court on the 1988 case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, gave school administrators the ability to review and change content in high school newspapers before they published.

Jon Fleischaker, a Louisville attorney with extensive experience in First Amendment cases, said because of that decision, the line of First Amendment rights is blurred a little.

“At the high school level, principals have a lot more latitude than, say, a college administrator would,” Fleischaker said. “You’re clearly dealing with First Amendment rights, you’re dealing with their right to speak. The question is ‘does the school have the right to discipline for the exercise of that speech?’”

He said even if the activity happens outside of school, they still may have that power.

“I will tell you I think the high school principal or administration has great leeway to take action against students, even for off-campus activities that they believe affect the school or school activities,” Fleischaker said. “I don’t happen to agree with that, but I think that’s the case.”

Sexton said students have plenty of room to voice their opinions in the student newspaper, The Hyphen.

“Believe me, they have some editorials in there and that’s not in any way censored or edited 1/8by the administration],” Sexton said. “It’s been open forum. It’s an internal medium and that’s their newspaper. If they wanted to write an editorial about hall passes, detention or whatever, that’s their outlet.”

L.C. Wright, a senior at the high school, said he thought the school’s administration should have stayed out of the situation because the site was harmless.

“I just thought it was silly,” Wright said. “After it started, other people just posted on it. It wasn’t like there were threats or anything, just funny stuff.”

Amanda Barnes, a sophomore at the school, said she didn’t agree with principals punishing students.

“It’s ridiculous if he’s trying to suspend people for something that’s not a big deal,” Barnes said. “It’s not disruptive.”

Hooper said he has another meeting with Sexton soon, but isn’t sure what it’s about. He said his parents told him some of their friends were concerned it could have to do with his graduation from the high school.

Sexton said he wasn’t trying to quash anyone’s ability to voice their opinions. He said the students may face other ramifications for their actions, but didn’t know what they might be.

“We’ve got to wait until something happens and someone points a finger and makes blame,” Sexton said. “You are responsible for what you do in life. It’s a teachable moment.”

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Copyright (c) 2011, The Evening News and the Tribune, Indiana. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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