America: Losing Free Speech to Emerging Dictatorship All Because of Complaints Posted on Social Media?

Maybe it started with prisoner lawsuits over peanut butter, or the coffee is hot “revelation” disseminated to the public after McDonald’s was sued by people with burned laps. Maybe it was all the headlines of people behaving badly, showing up to work hung over, talking in hushed voices about the wild time had the night before that had employers thinking they could mandate employees sign morals clauses, even worse, that they could dictate what law abiding activities people could do in their own home and still keep their jobs. We all knew schools had become lost causes for common sense when they banned Swiss Army knives, and started sending grade schoolers’ to reform schools for using metal forks and real knives on their food, when middle and high schoolers’ were caught with consumable amounts of Midol, Aspirin, mouthwash and suspended or expelled under drug violations. But schools have now reached a new low imposing honor codes for students while off school grounds, during breaks, on summer vacation, weekends. Also students even into college are being sanctioned for unflattering comments posted about teachers on social media, going so far as to relate it to cyber bullying. Punishments range in severity; removal from sports teams, extra curricular activities to suspension, even expulsion, possible loss of college scholarships while still attending high school.

To be clear, these are not the long held policies of posh private and prep schools, specialty and charter schools known for only accepting the elite, the best and the brightest, requiring school uniforms before that was the latest gimmick to get kids to focus, but those ultra standards being put in place beyond the doors of a public school near you. Equally telling are the instances schools believe they have a right to try and intervene in or punish students on behalf of the school’s reputation, society, whatever the reasoning may be; not cases where students have been arrested for vandalism, violence, drinking, drugs, serious offences. Instead the supposed criminality, moral infractions being targeted are unflattering comments posted on Facebook about teachers’ bad breath and personal appearance, competence. A salon academy went so far as to file a defamation lawsuit against a student’s Facebook page intended as a place to vent, alleging the accusations from incompetence to promiscuity caused emotional distress. Even cases where the school’s inclination to get involved, at fist glance, appears justified to head off a dangerous trend or save young lives, something is still very off. As was the case of a high school volleyball player removed from the team, who ended up losing college scholarships for attending a party, where underage drinking was taking place yet consuming no alcohol themselves.

Bringing up another issue with honor codes punishments, punishments that too often have nothing to do with the crime or are not something they can take away, or retract as punishment. Case in point the high school student whose unflattering comment about a teacher not only got her suspended but caused them to deny her advanced placement status when applying to colleges. Not only is the latter excessive, it has nothing to do with the work students put forth taking advance placement courses or the grades, test scores allowing them to participate in advanced placement classes to begin with. Leading one to question how is this legal? A similar concept applies to a student who was suspended for risquè photos on their Facebook page; such a page should not fall under the school’s jurisdiction unless the page was somehow attributed to or affiliated with them. However the story implies said page belonged to only the student. While colleges have every right to be selective about who they give scholarships to, it sends the wrong message when you take things away from a student making the right choice, refusing to give in to peer pressure despite what is around them.

Needless to say this has spawned lawsuits on behalf of students subjected to the new order of disciplinary tactics now availed by schools, citing of course free speech. Ironically many things have been tolerated in the name of said speech; pornography has long been called an unfortunate side effect of it, tabloids print blatant untruths about celebrities and known figures while defamation lawsuits are rarely won, same thing with tabloid modeled television shows, like political attack ads, who get the name of the candidate/celebrity right and that’s the only grain of truth, obviously false advertising all go on with impunity. We tolerate hype driven reality TV type docudramas, film making ala Michael Moore. You have a right to burn the flag, despite whether you should; the Nazis, the KKK, Arian brotherhood even Islamic extremists all have web sites, yet kids with ranting/venting sites posting comments about their teachers, inviting others to share their experiences during the same class, interactions with said teacher make headlines.

Whether it is because social media is so new or because of the tragic outcomes of statements posted there, school administrators, officials have suddenly forgotten what they actually have control over; simultaneously other officials have forgotten the first amendment. Ignorance of how social media is used, what those posting intended has a role here too; students use it as a place to vent, to talk, to commiserate with others over similar experiences, the same way their past counterparts got together at someone’s house, the local hang out to talk about so and so’s history final or Mrs. Whoever’s fashion sense, the same way past counterparts talked on the telephone to friends about these things. After complaints about the salon student’s page, he posted a heading in capital letters explaining what the page was for, putting in his own words at least some of the list above.

Interesting, is how anyone thinks the venting, complaining, unflattering comments differ from the choice of one school district to post teacher performance ratings in the local newspaper, or how it differs from a host of reviews submitted by hand, on-line critiquing stores, restaurants, products, interactions with various agencies selling a variety of services. Related to that, how it differs from comments posted regarding on-line news articles, commentary pieces, blogs, livejounal postings, individuals web pages not attached to even obscure social media venues. Continuing in that same vein, comparing students’ similar comments, observations, feelings about class work, teaching style, tests, projects and so forth, to cyber bullying is not only inaccurate, but inflammatory to the point of detracting from a serious issue. Motivation for cracking down on cyber bullying so hard came out of students who committed suicide because of on-line taunts harassment, threats; the idea being that kids, who are required by law to go to school, shouldn’t have to just endure being unable to concentrate, being anxious or otherwise miserable.

If that is so, the litmus test then should be show me, the public, a judge teachers talked about surrounding these cases, or any teacher for that matter, is in counseling, taking medication for depression, anxiety, attempted suicide, began to self harm, developed an alcohol/drug problem because of statements made; demonstrate a teacher was prevented from doing their job, unable to function, seriously mentally compromised as children featured in heart wrenching headline stories were.

Contrastingly claims in the beauty school case of emotional distress border on ridiculous, having “this is what we could try and sue for” written all over it. Further, unlike the kids, these people are adults possessing far more coping skills, having the option to change jobs, go to another school or get out of the profession completely. Another approach looking at the comments pertaining to class dynamics, projects, how students receive information given, and decide if there’s anything you, the teacher, can do to make a better classroom, better learning experience. One person posting a comment on an article detailing the salon academy case pointed out allegations of promiscuity are not feelings; they are either factual or not. And if not, then such allegations are slanderous; however if a student thinks they are correct, is posting based on information they have others do not… and how do we tell the difference? Coming backlash concerning this issue will next to certainly include serious accusations discussed on social media, like Facebook, that turned out to be true, especially with more and more erratic teacher behavior caught on tape. A math teacher who flipped out during class, began yelling and throwing things, teachers at special needs schools caught on the districts own cameras manhandling students, teachers caught using profanity on students, many times when they knew cameras were on them; imagine what goes on without cameras.

Unfortunately impact stemming from technology cases like these is not only brought upon students and the high schools, colleges they attend; society feels effects as well, and not just in terms of legal precedent, forced behavior change, loss of freedom, which are alarming enough. But once again we make it harder for, almost exclusively, young people to survive, become productive, contribute and with no real purpose. School’s reputations should not be adversely effected because students picking a college aren’t picking it based solely on comments posted at Facebook; plus they understand not only what the medium is used for, but such rants are easily identifiable to anyone, regardless of age, who reads them thoroughly. Parents should take lessons from their children and vet their child’s elementary school, middle school, high school on more reliable, concrete information. Likewise teachers at high schools universities, specialty schools shouldn’t be effected either during employment or in seeking another job for the same reasons. If employers are going refuse hire to a qualified teacher based on clearly biased student rants, content not belonging to, or posted by, said teacher and are allowed to do so, then laws regulating employer behavior need to change, in lieu of changing laws, regulations on student behavior.

What is drastically apparent is the effect of having more young people lacking a high school diploma due to being expelled, who gave up and dropped out after suspension necessitated repeating a grade, students barred from college educations due to loss of scholarship. More people who can’t get jobs, more people on welfare, more people going down a path of crime started with instances like this. Preventing dangerous behavior like drinking and posting explicit content on the web won’t happen if you take away privileges from individuals making the right choice; as presented earlier, it sends the wrong message. Teens will think might as well drink if I’m going to get busted just for being here; such logic also assumes everyone knows everything, is in control of everything, transpiring at a party they simply attend, not host, an absolute impossibility. People dictate their own behavior nothing more.

Rather than suspend the explicit web poster from school, since the pictures were of themselves, not others, school officials should have called parents and let them deal with it. If you have several students posting such materials it’s time for a meeting with all the parents who have kids at the school, or as many as you can get to attend that type of event, to alert them to the problem; then have a school wide assembly focused on education and awareness, consequences of posting material as it relates to jobs, college admission, criminal charges. Expulsions really have no place in the disciplinary actions K-12 surrounding technology issues minus threats of violence or injury, because expulsion usually includes all schools in the school district, yet isn’t problem students exactly what alternative schools, within the district, were made for? Isn’t it a far better alternative than setting up students to fail, potentially breeding criminals over distasteful comments?

Letting such actions stand cause inevitable questions about that proverbial slippery slope, if this then what next, schools monitoring content on personal cellphones, doling out punishments for content of personal e-mail accounts. Shining light on other questions in need of answering, how are school officials, teachers finding out about Facebook postings, what party students attended? Are other students alerting them to information, are teachers and administrators already active on social media stumbling on to pictures comments, “venting pages” or are they actively moving through the site looking for punishable content, monitoring student pages? Not only is the latter disturbing as it pertains to basic privacy concerns, jurisdictional limits, but teachers and administrators have for better things to do than create the next generation of the wrong kind of tattle tail and better methods of handling concerns, not to mention bigger concerns than web pages. Suburbs, quiet little communities are fast becoming heroin dens, young people using it as opposed more expensive ways to get high then finding they are more addicted than they ever thought possible. Just one example of something else needing the focus given this seemingly manufactured problem.

Obviously there are cases where school suspensions, removal from activities, even expulsion are warranted; you see it with colleges, sports players suspended, kicked off teams for bar fights, arrests, assault charges, rape, domestic violence. Otherwise the solutions detailed above are real problem solving implemented as opposed to defamation lawsuits filed seemingly because they could, because “adults” fail to understand an emerging 21st century social structure or sadly more apt, “adults” doing so simply because they don’t like what they hear, see, read thus thinking there ought to be a law against it. Another hard truth everyone needs to get their heads around, morals clauses and extremely high standards, honor codes and stringent conduct rules enforced this way never work, routinely only resulting in lawsuits; fired employees often end up in court claming the offence they were fired for was not cover in the clause they signed, or signing said document violated their civil or first amendment rights.

Schools concerned about their reputations might want to think twice, as parents are becoming more and more resistant to things that try overly indoctrinate, control their children or usurp parental authority. Lastly, most importantly, just because they’re minors, students doesn’t mean they forfeit their first amendment rights, just because they are speaking about teachers, authority figures and isn’t exactly nice, doesn’t mean the first amendment ceases to apply. Because it may potentially be seen by all the world, doesn’t mean the author looses their first amendment rights, neither does it mean rights are lost because there is a new way to present old information. Just because it’s there doesn’t everyone saw it; just because it’s there doesn’t automatically mean it’s cyber bullying, malicious, slanderous or harmful. Just because you know it exists doesn’t mean it has to ruin your reputation, ruin your job performance, satisfaction; just because it’s there doesn’t effect who you are as a person, a professional. You, as a teacher, are a professional; act like it.

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About Natasha Sapp

Proclaiming an edgy voice of reason to America,while bringing back the common sense to social issues.

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