Sad Day For Free Speech For Students

September 22, 2008

by — Posted in Political, Security

Picture from here

Ars Technica is reporting that a school in Pennsyvania has suspended 2 students for creating a Myspace profile of their principal mocking him.  A federal judge upheld this ruling when they were sued by one of the students for suspending them for something they created on their own time outside of school.   Personally I find this disturbing on two fields.

The first I want to bring up is parody.  I’m not sure why they didn’t take the parody defense.   To their non-target audience I’m sure the language and style they used was reprehensible, and to the school district bordering in libel.   I however remember what it was like being a teenager, a time period that most adults don’t allow themselves to identify with once they age past it.  The key thing they need ot look at is the target audience.   It wouldn’t be truly fair to have a trial of teenagers to be judged by their “peers” and have the jury made up of people older then 25.   That seems to be the tipping point when the social norms of the next high school generation are lost on the adults.   The language is different.  The clothing is different.   The attitudes are different.  Unless a similar mindset can be understood by the jury, the teenager will loose almost every time in a “Damn kids don’t respect anything” moment.  I think parody would have been the correct defense.

Now let’s look at the freedom of speech angle.  There is quite a few that feel like I do that the traditional schooling these days is to extinguish individual thought and bring people around to “group think”.  We all have our moments when we feel group think is a good thing, most of that time is when group think agrees with what we are thinking.   However when a student has individual thought they seem to get punished.  About eight years ago my sister was almost suspended for going to school with pink hair.   The problem was that “it was a distraction” – really?  Life is all about distraction and things that block you from achieving your goals.   Work through it.   She (nor the boys in question from the beginning argument) hurt or threatened the life or welfare of those around them.   Even then it should be either handled by the police or if it happened in school, by the police and the school.

One of the arguments the defense used was that though the boys wrote the information outside of school, it was targeted at students in it.  Duh!  Almost the whole of their society is wrapped up in school.  They don’t really live work and interact within the community.  Their peer and focus groups are almost all inclusively within that school.  Of course it’s going to be their target audience.  The same way that writing an OP-Ed piece for the local community newspaper is targeted at that community.  It doesn’t matter if the person that wrote the piece technically lives outside the city borders, it’s still valid.  They are addressing their peer group.  What we have now is we are creating a society where it is considered to mock or question public figures.  If their are repercussions outside of the normal legal channels, students then gain a greater fear of authority then they should have.

Like work, there needs to be a seperation between a students personal lives and their work lives.   What I do on my own time is none of my works business.  When I am at work it is completely their business and I have to deal with anything that stems out of my decisions from there.   If this case was going after the libel or slander side of the coin, which is where it should have gone, it should not have been handled by removing the children from the school.  It should have been settled in the courts and outside of the venue of schools.   The biggest issue is while if I do something egregious outside of work that can have a negative effect on the company, I can get fired.  Schools however should not be allowed to fire or punish students on things that take place outside of their borders of jurisdiction, which end at the edge of school property.

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