Should Students be Protected from Consequences of Speech?

Presidential elections, especially closely-fought ones, sometimes bring out the worst in the country’s citizens. That seemed to have been the case this November, when, after the reelection of President Barack Obama, more than a few young people took to Twitter to air their frustration with the choices made by the voters. In response, Gawker media [...]

Presidential elections, especially closely-fought ones, sometimes bring out the worst in the country’s citizens. That seemed to have been the case this November, when, after the reelection of President Barack Obama, more than a few young people took to Twitter to air their frustration with the choices made by the voters.

In response, Gawker media website Jezebel collected the most racially insensitive tweets of the bunch, directed mainly at President Obama, and published them – including the real names of their authors, who were mainly high school students – for their readers to see and judge. According to Ken Paulson, writing for USA Today, the collection proved a sorry one full of racist epithets, stereotypes and “with N-word in abundance.”

In some cases, Jezebel bloggers even contacted the students’ schools to seek comment from administrators about the tweets.

Although the the list no doubt garnered Jezebel many pageviews, what it didn’t garner them was many friends. Technology news website GigaOM even asked if what Jezebel was doing crossed the line into cyberbullying. When does this kind of denunciation of sentiments expressed by fairly young adults go too far?

The answer to that is never. It would be a mistake to mischaracterize the denunciation of racially offensive speech as abusive. To the contrary, that give-and-take (or more precisely “say something deeply offensive and get verbally pummeled”) is what free speech in America is all about. That’s the flaw in virtually every strategy to keep students in both high school and college on the social media straight and narrow. High school is all about preparing the next generation for citizenship. We teach them civics, history, a smattering of math and science and hand them a diploma. But we too often also try to control their every move. That’s literally the case with the news last week that a sophomore at John Jay High School in San Antonio was expelledafter refusing to carry an ID with a computer chip designed to track the movements of every student in the school.

Although Paulson mischaracterizes the story in question – the student refused to wear both RFID-fitted ID card and the one that with the tracking technology removed, offered as a compromise – he insists that schools have been treading a little too heavily on the free expression rights of their students all while attempting to shield them. The Supreme Court has previously found that even when in a school building, neither students nor teachers can be lawfully deprived of their First Amendment rights.

Some feel that by going overboard protecting students from the consequence of their speech, schools are robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to take advantage of these rights responsibly. Learning about both the freedom and the responsibility that comes from exercising your free speech is one of the main steps to becoming a full participant in U.S. democracy – something that schools shouldn’t be taking steps to actively discourage.

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