free speech and school discipline

The most interesting case discussed at yesterday’s conference involved an assistant principal at a Texas high school. Some of her students had created a MySpace page that ostensibly belonged to her. They made her seem to be a lesbian and attributed various false and inflammatory opinions to her. She was truly horrified by this experience. She felt violated, and she faced tangible consequences (harassing phone calls, comments at work, etc.).

It seems pretty clear that the assistant principal has standing to sue the students in civil court for defamation. I don’t know the legal standards for defamation, nor the whole truth of the case; but civil courts are competent to decide such matters.

The trickier question is whether the school may make a disciplinary case out of such behavior.

On one hand, the students allegedly defamed a member of the school community. Although they probably made the MySpace page from their home computers, the results can be viewed in the school and may affect working conditions and discipline there. Perhaps the school should be allowed to suspend or otherwise punish the students.

On the other hand, the students exercised speech on their own time. For the school (an arm of the state) to punish speech has First Amendment implications, especially since there would be no due process. The alleged victim in the case would be able to decide that the MySpace page aimed at her was defamatory (not mere satire); and her decision could not be appealed.

I felt very sympathetic to the administrator in this case, but I’m inclined to think that public schools should not be able to punish students for acts of expression undertaken off school property. Some expression is unacceptable and even illegal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s schools’ business.

(By the way, I’m not saying that MySpace and other websites are off limits as sources of evidence of student misbehavior. If a kid posts a comment about breaking school rules, administrators are free to use that information. If you don’t want people to read or see something, don’t post it online.)