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Student Use of Social Media as Free Speech and Its Impact on PK – 12 Public Schools (4/12/14)

PK – 12 schools in the United States have the responsibility of providing students with an academic education, intended to position them for the workplace or college entry upon graduation from grade 12. What often goes unrealized however, and equally as important as the academic function of schools, is their civic role in preparing students to participate fully in our democratic society. In preparing students to participate responsibly as citizens in adult society in the United States, many values are presented and evaluated. In presenting and evaluating these values, the greatest portion of civic instruction that takes place in PK – 12 schools does not occur as a function of the explicit curriculum of schools but rather as a part of the unwritten or hidden curriculum of schools that is demonstrated through their daily operations. Further, because schools operate on laws, principles, and policies that are designed to create a specific environment, among other objectives, one of the civic values that regularly comes to the forefront for examination is freedom of speech by students. This is especially true at the middle and high school levels where students are older and test boundaries.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of expression of beliefs in the United States and the ability to address grievances to the government. This right ensures the free exchange and debate of ideas in our country and helps hold government accountable to citizens for its actions. In regard to free speech in public schools, the landmark court case is Tinker v. DesMoines. In the case, which revolved around students’ rights to peaceably wear black armbands at school in protest of the war in Vietnam, the United States Supreme Court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech” at the schoolhouse door. While this truth was upheld by the Supreme Court and students have maintained their freedom of speech rights in PK -12 schools, in practice in school districts throughout the United States, these rights are limited where disruption and subversion to the good order of schools are at stake.

Regarding the response to disruption and subversion, school districts and school administrators regularly take action against conduct that students may believe is within their rights on their private time in their homes in a “free country.” However, students’ perceptions on these issues do not necessarily deal with all of the relevant facts. Once posted on the internet, students’ musings are in the public domain. Also, the actions that students often view as innocuous or comical at most are at many times disruptive to the operation of schools and subversive to good order within.

Obviously, the boom in technology in our society over the past 20 years gave birth to the current age of information exchange and the social media environment. This is one of the great achievements of modern society and it has positively impacted our world for the better. It has also been a Pandora’s Box of sorts. The use of social media is prevalent to the point that it is as much a part of the daily life of middle and high school students in the United States as is the act of waking and brushing their teeth before they come to school each day. It is ubiquitous.

Because of social media’s ubiquitous nature it is has become the major platform that students use to air their grievances with each other and with adults who have authority over them. Also, because students are not yet adults and are still developing judgment, they do not consistently use social media in responsible ways, as we would expect adults to. This is where the problem arises for schools. School administrators in the field know that although students may air their grievances outside of school on social media, the fallout from this almost always takes place in school. This is why more and more we see students being disciplined for their conduct on social media outside of school because it directly impacts what happens inside of the school, often interfering with the school’s ability to educate students in a safe and disruption free environment. Students’ attempts to impugn school staff online also interfere with the school environment because it erodes the teacher-student relationship that is needed to maintain order in schools and have students fully engage in the learning process.

Given the realities that surround student use of social media and its impact on schools, how do districts go about addressing the matter?

  • First, school systems can establish thoughtful policies that clearly address online conduct by students. These policies simply need to support appropriate teacher-student relationships and give administrators the authority to maintain order in their schools in incidents that arise in this area.
  • Also, schools must find opportunities in the curriculum, especially in business, journalism, and computer science and applications classes, to educate students about their free speech rights and the contexts in which they can be scrutinized in the online environment. Students must be taught to use social media responsibly and understand that when airing grievances, just as in the adult world, to be credible they should deal with facts and know that they are accountable for all that they publish.
  • Finally, school districts must reach out to parents as partners in guiding students in their use of social media. Schools can’t do it alone. Students are only at school for about eight  hours each day. Parents must monitor their children’s’ activities at home and help ensure that they are acting responsibly.

Working together, schools and parents can help students develop the appropriate sense of civic and social responsibility that is needed to use social media as an effective tool for communication and expression. In this context, students will develop into responsible citizens who know their rights and use them effectively to protect their individual interests as well as to promote positive change within systems throughout our society.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO