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Students' speech rights become murkier on social networking Web sites

School rules are trickier in cyberspace.

As social networking sites attract younger followers, schools across the country are grappling with the fuzzy boundary between harmless online chatter and valid security concerns.

The issue hit North Texas this month when two Frisco middle-schoolers were suspended for threatening to kill their teacher on Facebook.

Legal experts say districts face an unprecedented challenge in this digital era – monitoring information without infringing on students' free speech rights.

"Courts are still navigating how to deal with the Internet and what happens on and off campus," said Mary-Rose Papandrea, an associate professor of law at Boston College who studies the effects of digital technology on student speech rights.

"They generally say schools have the authority to restrict student speech off-campus when it's materially disruptive to the school's activity, there's rude language or it advocates drug use or violence."

A former student at Frisco's Staley Middle School created a Facebook page titled "I hate Mrs" with the teacher's name included. Comments on the page read, "Join now and maybe we can all kill her together" and "We are gonna kill her soon."

School officials were alerted to the page by someone from outside the district.

"The students communicated threats, which means they lost their speech rights even if they said them outside of school and didn't follow through on them," Papandrea said. "In that case, it's not different than any other citizen offline."

Different standards

But these online networks are becoming the modern equivalent of scribbled notes in class, making it unclear whether students are tossing offhand remarks or plotting demolition.

Some believe "these 'chatters' are not fixed and permanent in the same way that a formal Web page posting or written letter might be," said Lorraine Kisselburgh, an assistant professor of communication at Purdue University who researches online boundaries. "And so some might argue that conversations like these should not be held to the same standard as statements that are fully intended to be heard, or published."

Dana Saffery, whose daughter has class with the Frisco teacher, said these online networks provide a visible venue for teenage angst.

"I don't believe anybody had any intention of physically hurting anybody," she said. "Kids just have pretty vivid vocabulary as far as interacting with each other."

More than half of teenagers who use computers have online profiles, and 91 percent say they use these networks to keep in touch with friends, according to a recent report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The problem is that Internet use doesn't necessarily translate into consumer savvy, said Matthew Lapple, a San Diego-based attorney and board member for Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit online safety group. "Students need to realize that online behaviors have real-life consequences."

In some instances, students aren't even supposed to be using the service. Facebook's terms of conduct prohibit users younger than 13 years old, which include many of the Frisco sixth-graders connected to the Facebook page. MySpace also requires users to be 13 or older.

More instances

Cases are continuing to sprout up nationally involving First Amendment rights and the extent of a school's reach online. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against an Indiana school district after two high-schoolers were punished for posting sexually suggestive photos on MySpace during their summer vacation.

And a former high school teacher is suing a Georgia school district after it pressured her to resign for swearing on her private Facebook page and posting a picture of herself holding a glass of wine.

The threats distinguish the Frisco incident, said Whitney De La Cruz, who has two students at Staley Middle School.

"Even if some of those children had innocent intentions, there are ones that could have been encouraged to do something," she said.

De La Cruz didn't find the suspensions to be severe enough punishment in a world shaped by the Columbine killings and other acts of student violence.

"They need to have more fear instilled in them," she said.

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Posted in: News by SoulRiser on November 25, 2009 @ 9:12 PM

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