Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The debate over student off-campus speech and First Amendment protection

The debate over student off-campus speech and First Amendment protection:

The debate over student off-campus speech and First Amendment protection

A recent federal court ruling about a public-school student punished for a Facebook post about a bomb threat may have some bigger First Amendment implications, says a judge who wrote the decision.
school_LockersIn the case of R.L. v. Central York School District, Judge John E. Jones III said last week that the York School District’s punishment of the student with a 23-day suspension didn’t violate his First Amendment rights, as his parents claimed. But Jones, echoing some other federal court judges, believed broader issues involved with this case and similar cases needed definition from federal appeals courts and the Supreme Court.
Jones issued his ruling on May 3 for the federal court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
“How school administrators must balance students’ First Amendment rights with their duty to protect and foster a safe learning environment is a tension of principles the circuit courts, as well as the Supreme Court, are actively negotiating and developing,” Jones wrote.
In one example, where R.L.’s parents argued that the school’s handbook overstated its ability to regulate student speech under the Supreme Court’s Tinker decision, Jones sided with the parents, but he also said schools needed input from the higher courts on their off-campus speech policies.
“We must observe that schools need clear guidance from the Third Circuit or the Supreme Court as to whether and when they can regulate off-campus speech. Once a clearer rule is pronounced, schools would be well advised to revise their disciplinary policies to clearly outline when off-campus student speech or conduct can be regulated by the school,” Jones wrote.
In this specific case, a bomb-threat letter was discovered at the school in October 2013. School was later dismissed, and while at home, the student made the Facebook post which he later said as intended as a joke, which read, “Plot twist, bomb isn’t found and goes off tomorrow.”
The student later returned to school to get his belongings, which included a mobile device he used to delete the Facebook post. By that time, local police had noticed the post and consulted with the school. School officials then spoke with the student and his father at a football game that night, and told the student he faced a suspension. A disciplinary board later set the suspension at 23 days, and the parents sued on behalf on their son.
The parents claimed their son had his First and 14th Amendment rights violated, since there wasn’t a higher court precedent that allowed schools to punish students for off-campus speech that didn’t cause a substantial disruption at school.
The 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines held that schools could restrict student speech when it threatens a substantial disruption to the school environment or invades the rights of others.
Judge Jones said the location where the student made the Facebook post didn’t matter in this specific case. “Schools should be able to discipline students on account of off-campus speech they reasonably believe could cause disruption in the form of danger or violence, or fear of danger or violence, in schools. Such a rule would also account for the modern reality of the Internet and The debate over student off-campus speech and First Amendment protection:

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