I wrote a piece last August arguing that new anti-bullying laws would inevitably lead to the enforcement of such provisions butting up against First Amendment rights. In it, I wrote:
Several potential problems with the policy became clear rather quickly. First, the decision over what material satisfies the vague test for being “inappropriate” or constituting “cyberbullying” is now entirely at the discretion of school administrators. Secondly, a student need not even write the offending post himself: A Facebook “like” or Twitter re-tweet is enough to trigger the punishment provisions of the policy.
The major concern I identified was that schools were now reaching far beyond the schoolhouse doors to enforce vaguely-defined policies that punished speech-based conduct that was otherwise legal. I anticipated that the application of these policies would lead to absurd results, such as someone being kicked off of the school football team for “liking” the wrong page on Facebook during his free time.
That absurdity is upon us.
Demi Grant, a student at Hartsville High School in Hartsville, South Carolina, was suspended from school for a week for “favoriting” a tweet by the Twitter account @HSConfessionsSC.
The account is usually crass and consists of “submitted” comments about various local high schools in South Carolina. They’re normally either stereotypes about the school, or urban legends about something that happened there. To cite two of the less-vulgar examples: “Only at Summerville do students [get] high enough to try to pet the drug dogs – SHS” and “A guy got arrested for punching a girl in the face and breaking her nose bc she was making fun of his socks.”
Most of the tweets from the account include sexual language, general profanity, scatological references, or other potentially objectionable content. It is, at times, gross, juvenile, and distasteful.
But that’s not the point.
The point, as it was last August, is that it is nonetheless still protected speech, and that this is an example of a public school system punishing a student who:
1. Engages in conduct not on school grounds or on school time.
2. Engages in conduct that is protected speech.
3. Engages in conduct whose meaning isn’t even clear (“favoriting” can be interpreted many ways), but which is nonetheless being pulled under the broad umbrella of “bullying.”
This is a dangerous path.
As Grant explained, she favorited tweets from the account because she thought they were funny, not because she even believed them to be true. For this, she was actually suspended from school, a punishment that goes far beyond even the scenarios I cooked up while discussing the Lodi Unified anti-bullying policy last year.
Most troubling is the seeming acceptance of the situation with a “you can’t fight city hall” shrug. As the WBTW piece I linked to explains:
Still, mother and daughter say they’ve learned their lesson.
“If I see something like that, just leave alone because in the long run it could come back and get involved with the school and then this will happen again. It’s just not worth it,” said Demi.
“There’s nothing really your children can do at school or outside of school that the district cant [sic] punish them for,” stated Stephanie.
Emphasis mine. “It’s just not worth it” is, in a nutshell, the chilling of free speech. In other words, why say anything if there’s a risk of being punished for it by the state?
And the bolded portion of the quote is the idea that people have accepted (albeit reluctantly) in the face of the major push for “anti-bullying.” Namely, that bullying is such an enormous problem than comments anywhere, at any time, no matter how ambiguous, may be punished by the school system if it deems them to be “bullying” under whatever subjective, unilateral standard they see fit to use.
The piece goes on to note that the Grants tried to appeal the suspension, but to no avail.
Beware the alleged “greater good” when it is used as a tool of the hyper-sensitive and the overprotective to curtail speech rights.