Students punished for expressing free speech on Twitter

The verdict of the landmark 1969 Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines said that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” However, with the continuous rise of social media, school administrators have been disciplining students for expressing themselves on the Internet.

UH students continually express their opinions, and we are lucky not to have run into any trouble with the right to freedom of expression.

When the “UH Confessions” page flooded Facebook with grievances, accusations and confessions, the administration did not step in. Almost every university has or has had the typical confessions-type of Facebook page or Twitter account.

This confessional trend began spilling into high schools, and because high school administrators have a stricter disciplinary jurisdiction on their students in the confines of their walls, it raised questions about when administrators can limit free expression.

Students have been punished for their online comments — even if those comments were made off school property and after school hours. Administrators typically target cyber-bullies for disciplinary action, but some students have been punished for posting commentaries the school did not like or agree with.

Social search and seizure

The Minnewaska School District in 2012 punished then-sixth-grader Riley Stratton for a comment she had made on her Facebook page, forcing her to relinquish her Facebook and email account passwords. While she was in her own home, Stratton made a Facebook comment about a staff member from the school.

School officials searched through her Facebook page with police present and left Stratton distressed to the point that she did not want to attend school anymore. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota won the settlement, and the school district agreed to change its policies to ensure privacy protection for students.

Public relations senior Melissa Bias said Minnewaska’s actions were a breach of power.

“I don’t think schools shouldn’t be able to interfere and regulate with the social media accounts of students,” Bias said.

Punishments that don’t fit the crime

The cases of school officials seemingly overreacting and stepping too far to discipline students continue to pile up. These students are expressing how they feel and what they believe. Just because the school does not agree with it does not mean there’s a ground for disciplinary action.

“I think it’s also an age thing where people believe high schoolers can’t have their own opinion,” Bias said. “They’re being punished for putting their views out there, and I don’t think it’s right.”

All schools, no matter the academic level, should respect the opinions of their students.

For example, UH’s Freedom of Expression Policy says the University is committed to “fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged.” This policy explains in detail the approval process and the designated campus areas for organized expressive activities.

The fight for students’ free speech rights

The smothering of expression has become apparent enough that it inspired Mary Beth Tinker — of the 1969 free speech case — to go on a nationwide tour called Tinker Tour USA. During this tour, Tinker speaks and inspires students to remember they have the right to freedom of expression in and outside school or not.

As the boundaries between school and home have increasingly blurred, it appears that school administrators are abusing the openness of the Tinker decision in today’s continuous erosion of young people’s privacy.

“(Students) have the right to free speech … the only people who should be able to punish them should be their parents,” said public relations junior Preshus Guide.

As long as there isn’t a clear and present danger, there is no harm in what students are saying, regardless of whether the school approves.

At the same time, students do need to be cautious of what they share online in the professional sense. As more employers routinely search through job candidates’ social profiles, what people say online does affect them. However, a high school student expressing their displeasure in the administration does not have the same professional weight.

School officials should not be allowed to eavesdrop and filter what students are saying with their friends on social media.

Opinion columnist Gemrick Curtom is a public relations junior and may be reached at [email protected]

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