Can Schools Punish Internet Bullies?

Commentary: School bureaucracies have one overriding goal: to exert control over student life sufficient to create an atmosphere conducive to learning. However, when that control is exerted outside school premises, students may legitimately question whether it is wise or even legal for the school to have such authority.

Internet bullying is a perfect case in point. There are many examples of the ways in which it can invade the process of learning: the teacher in Florida who was the subject of a sexually demeaning post by her student (resulting in a $1000 judgment); or the principal in Pennsylvania who sued over a MySpace posting that posted derogatory comments about him (suspension of the student was upheld by the trial court and is now on appeal).

However, there have also been cases in which a student has sued the school district for impairing his First Amendment rights. This has involved everything from a student who was forced to leave the school because he posted rap songs that the school district found objectionable to a young man who was temporarily forced to leave a school because he posted negative comments about the school administration. Each of these instances resulted in an award or settlement involving money damages to the student.

The dividing line seems to be whether a credible case can be made that the student’s Internet posting is linked to disrupting the school’s efforts to create an atmosphere conducive to learning. In other words, although the behavior occurs outside of school, could its impact boomerang back to the scholastic environment? Without that element, it appears that the courts will generally favor the student’s First Amendment rights to Internet speech. In such instance, the courts appear reticent to enforce the school’s right to regulate the extracurricular behavior of its students.

Comments/Questions: ljm@gdnlaw.com