Editorials and Opinions

Keep it a place for friends

By Alice Lee
Published: March 2009

Facebook is a funny thing – a place to extend friendships and recount details of a person’s life, that also paradoxically happens to be open to Internet users worldwide.

It’s true that a profile can be set on “private or even disabled. However, records of the owner’s Facebook usage are stored on a server and are not inaccessible. They can be hacked.

Despite this unsettling accessibility, the networking website is still immensely popular, especially among the younger generation. Whether to stalk, talk, or meet new people, it’s a safe bet that most students keep Facebook open on their computers for several hours at a time.

Furthermore, not only are they always on it, but they often post personal or indiscreet content on the completely public website.

We’ve all seen things we didn’t want to see on Facebook, whether it’s cruel gossip or compromising photos. No one particularly likes when this happens, but there’s nothing to be done about it – after all, everyone in this country is guaranteed the First Amendment right to free expression.

While the World Wide Web is certainly not what the Founding Fathers had in mind, it is nonetheless a medium – now the medium – for unfettered self-expression and exchange of ideas. In fact, in a 1997 Supreme Court case, Reno v. the American Civil Liberties Union, it was determined that the Internet is a free speech zone. Facebook is certainly no exception.

The problem is, a very high percentage of Facebook users are school-aged youth. As such, schools sometimes take it upon themselves to monitor their students’ usage of the networking site. But there is a limit to guardian responsibility and infringement on fundamental rights.

The fact that schools view their students’ Facebook pages is less disconcerting than the attempts of some to regulate students’ speech and other forms of expression on the website. The Internet is called the World Wide Web for a reason. To post information on it, is to acknowledge and accept that it will be viewed by the public.

There is no logical reason that students should also have to waive their First Amendment rights to school administration. This sort of regulation actually happened to a girl named Katherine Evans.

When she was a senior at Pembroke Charter High School in Gainesville, Florida, Evans posted a Facebook note complaining about an English teacher (something even the best of us have hovered on the brink of doing). She called her instructor “the worst teacher ever and invited other students to share their “feelings of hatred.

Evans’ note drew several critical responses from fellow students, and she removed it from her profile two days later. Two months later, Evans discovered that the school had somehow seen or heard about the posted note and was suspending her.

She was forced to withdraw from her AP English class and enroll in a lower-level course. The record of her suspension would also be able to her college, future grad school, and potential employers.

Evans made no threat against the teacher. She did not defame the teacher’s character. She did not disrupt the teacher’s life, nor did she disrupt school function.

Why then was she punished? After all, profoundly worse diatribes against teachers happen every day in the halls. They never elicit anything more than a disapproving eyebrow-raise from passing adults.

Facebook is, in effect, little different from a hallway’€even more free, actually, because it is outside the jurisdiction of the school. The website is more like a park, where people should be able to speak and interact freely.

Had Evans criticized her teacher in a public park, the school would have had no reason to take disciplinary action against her. The Internet is essentially the same thing, in an abstract place.

Katherine Evans is now being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against the high school principal who ordered her suspension. In lieu of monetary compensation, she only wants the removal of the suspension record.

Hopefully, the courts will set a precedent for the degree of Internet supervision of students afforded to schools. No matter how personal, imprudent, emotional, or simply “TMI a Facebook posting may be, it remains an individual statement made in the public forum.

Barring a significantly threatening or offensive tone, the constitutional right of free speech applies to all human expression in this country.

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