First Amendment Violations in Oregon Student Suspensions?

The social media age allows students to communicate and share information with each other easier than ever. But it also opens the door for cyberbullying. Nearly 20 high school students in Oregon were suspended from school after using Twitter to embellish a teacher’s relationship with her students. A post made by the Twitter account “Salem Confessions” was retweeted by the students and, according to the school, that action constituted cyber bullying.

The original Tweet read, “Ms. [name redacted always flirts with her students.”

While cyberbullying generally involves students bullying each other, in this case, school administrators found that the retweets were in violation of the school’s anti-cyberbullying statute. It defines cyberbullying as the “use of any electronic communication device to harass, intimidate or bully” and includes behavior that takes place “off school grounds but disrupts or prevents a safe and positive educational or working environment.” In this case, it was the teacher placed into that environment.

The victim in this case might not be traditional — so to speak — for cyberbullying, but, according to teacher’s union president Kathleen Swindell, “Cyberbullying is cyberbullying, regardless of who it is.”

“Today’s social platforms and mobile distribution continue to desensitize young people to the real world consequences of content they produce, promote and read. Parents need to take an active role in their child’s online footprint, so that real world values transfer to the online world,” said Paul Adkison, Founder of ZABRA, an online Family Safety Solution that helps guide parents in establishing guidelines and protects their children while online.

No matter the school’s policies, some believe that the suspension of 20 students was overkill and actually a violation of their rights. “Now, parents, students and community members are wondering whether the school’s punishment was an appropriate reaction to stem a growing bullying epidemic — or if it was an overreaction that violated students’ first-amendment rights,” notes Laura Fosmire.

Now, the ACLU of Oregon is involved and wants to make sure students are not punished for freedom of speech. They wrote a letter to the school district saying that the suspensions should be lifted and all records of the incident should be removed.

“Here, the student speech at issue took place off-campus and involved no threat of violence whatsoever,” said ACLU of Oregon legal director Kevin Diaz. “When students are off-campus, their First Amendment rights are equal to everyone else’s.”

Past situations from around the country that have been similar can provide a blueprint for how the case is handled. At least 60 students in California were suspended when they retweeted content from @SDSchoolConfess and a South Carolina student was also suspended for favoriting a tweet from a different “confessions” account. The same thing happened in Minnesota and the ACLU plainly stated that they thought the student was treated unfairly.

The school district’s action aside, cyberbullying presents great challenges in many schools. Reconceptualized policies and updates will be needed to better handle them.

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