Does Criticism of Teachers Constitute Free Speech?

Students are using the internet to complain about teachers, principals and the schools they  attend.  The vastness of the Internet and MySpace, Facebook and personal blogs permit them to vent about real or perceived complaints.

Some schools have taken have taken disciplinary steps against students posting critical content such as suspending students from the National Honor Society or banning the students from clubs or teams. There’s no question that attacks on principals and teachers are abrasive, degrading, racist, sexist opinions, sophomoric and insulting.  We tend to forget that students also have rights.  Exactly how much free speech is really free?

The issue of free speech in the schools seemed to be settled. In a landmark case in 1969, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment rights of public school students to wear black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. The high court asserted that young people have First Amendment rights, noting “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Short of a substantial disruption of school operations, the kids could have their say, the Supreme Court concluded. The black armband has been supplanted by the Internet, a potent tool for information, education and character assassination.

The two cases involving Pennsylvania school principals and MySpace could hold the key to the future of free expression for public school students. The cases ended up before separate panels of judges of the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which reached opposite conclusions. One panel concluded that the student had a First Amendment right to publish his parody because the school district did not demonstrate that the outrageous (and unbelievable) statements about the principal would significantly disrupt the teaching environment. The other panel justified the school’s actions as a way to preserve the principal’s authority and avert future disruption.

It’s tough to defend insults by teens, but check out the comments section of any online publication and you’ll find adults posting, all with the full protection of the First Amendment.

The best legal path in these cases is to treat young people posting ugly and potentially defamatory content the way we would adults. If the content is illegal or threatening, charge them. If the content is libelous, sue them, as some teachers and principals have done. And if the content is neither criminal nor libelous, accept a provocative posting as the free speech that it is.

When school administrators become aware of postings that malign teachers or principals, they should call the parents and let them mete out punishment.