Censoring Our Kids

January 26, 2009

A few of weeks ago, I wrote about the unsatisfactory outcome of the federal case brought against Lori Drew, the woman at the center of the Missouri MySpace hoax.

The mixed signals from state and federal prosecutors reflected the confusion that exists over what is legal or illegal in the huge but still very new world of online social networking.

In the absence of clear guidelines, the entities perhaps most impacted by social networking on a daily basis – colleges and schools – have been left to create and, where possible, enforce their own standards.

The resulting patchwork quilt of hastily amended statutes and local regulations was brought into sharp focus this month when a U.S. district court returned a verdict in a free speech case involving Avery Doninger, a Connecticut teen.

Ms. Doninger was a student at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, CT in 2007 when she decided to run for Class Secretary. However, the school principal rejected Avery’s candidacy over a personal blog entry that Avery had posted from her home computer in which she used some highly unflattering language while criticizing school authorities over a cancelled school event that she had helped organize.

Avery ran as a write-in candidate and won anyway, only to be barred from taking office. Her parents filed suit against the school district, claiming her First Amendment rights had been violated.

In court, the school district argued successfully that they were within their rights to discipline the student for an Internet posting the student wrote off school grounds. The district compared to Ms. Doninger’s post to cyberbullying and claimed that her writings disrupted school operations.

The district court judge appeared to sympathize with this argument. He noted that it’s now possible for students to send an e-mail message to hundreds of classmates at a time or post entries on social networking sites that are instantly available to teachers, students and administrators: "Off-campus speech can become on-campus speech with the click of a mouse," the judge wrote.

Although this particular case is not dead yet – the family’s lawyers have threatened to appeal the verdict all the way to the Supreme Court – it appears to mark another step in recognizing the all-pervasive nature of the Internet and the need for individuals, particularly children, to be very careful when they post online.

As the Lewis Mills High School principal was quoted: “When kids are in a position of privilege, there are certain standards of behavior we expect them to uphold. Our position stands for respect. We’re just hoping kids appreciate the seriousness of any communication (they make) over the Internet.”

The Online Mom

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