5.03.2007

thought police

Lately I've noticed an increasing number of stories like this one, in which students making fun of a teacher on Facebook were subject to school discipline.

How far into a student's life does a school's authority extend? The school can legitimately seek to govern internet usage on school time and with school equipment, just as most of our employers do. But it shouldn't have jurisdiction over what a student does on her own time. Ridiculing a teacher on the internet is no different than ridiculing a teacher in the pizza shop.

This letter to the Star from a future teacher expresses my thoughts perfectly.
As someone who is planning a teaching career at the university level, I am deeply disturbed by the encroaching powers of the school system over the Internet, as reflected in the discipline of students at Willowbrook Public School and elsewhere.

Regardless of the "inappropriateness" of students' comments on Facebook.com, the fact is that students always have and always will vent about and make fun of teachers and other authority figures, just as newspapers publish political cartoons and workers lampoon bosses. This is a typical response to a situation of power imbalance.

If teachers want to prevent students from saying potentially hurtful things about them, the solution is not to become thought police, but to hire better teachers who treat students with fairness and respect. Such teachers rarely get made fun of; even when they do, many students will stand up for them against the disgruntled few.

If you don't like what students are saying on Facebook.com, then get a Facebook account and participate in the dialogue. But administrators have no right to discipline students for online conversations that are conducted off school premises and after school hours, just as they have no right to punish them for the same conversations that have always taken place in the streets, parks, shopping malls and hockey arenas. --Jeff Denis, Toronto

It would great to see some libertarian-minded parents challenge this. Of course most parents agree with the schools, because they're more concerned with authority and discipline than with self-expression and personal freedoms. If the news stories are accurate, this is even more so in Canada than in the US; no surprise there. But I'd love to see a family stand up to this kind of authoritarian bullying.

24 comments:

Scott M. said...

Hm.

Wouldn't many of these statements qualify as libel? And if so, isn't school discipline more preferable than litigation?

L-girl said...

Wouldn't many of these statements qualify as libel?

No. For a statement to be libelous, it has to do verifiable harm to someone's public reputation or career, among other things. Statements among students about teachers would never reach the standard. No lawyer in the world would take the case.

Scott M. said...

But isn't that the point? It's not just between students. It's published.

In some cases, the kids are creating fake facebook entries for their teacher where they pose as the teacher.

Some students have posted that their teacher was masterbating in class! Do you not think that if that teacher's name was googled by a potential employer that statements like that could be harmful?

How about.any other adults impressions? It's not like it's perfectly clear to all internet users that it's a kid posting.

L-girl said...

So if you happen to be under 18 years old and a student, you don't have the rights that everyone else has when it comes to free speech on the internet? Plenty of people in their 20s and 30s and beyond post stupid and obnoxious things online. They're allowed. Why can the school tell a student they're not allowed to do this on their own time?

Some students have posted that their teacher was masterbating in class! Do you not think that if that teacher's name was googled by a potential employer that statements like that could be harmful?

I think this is nonsense. A Facebook entry is not going to come up on Google, an employer is not going to treat a Facebook entry like a published report.

But again, if this was posted by you or I, it would be within our rights, and no one could tell us not to. But the school can tell the student not to? I don't think so.

James said...

So if you happen to be under 18 years old and a student, you don't have the rights that everyone else has when it comes to free speech on the internet? Plenty of people in their 20s and 30s and beyond post stupid and obnoxious things online. They're allowed.

On the other hand, if people in their 20s and 30s created fake Facebook entries about, say, their employers and posted about their boss masturbating at the office, there's a good chance they'd be facing disciplinary actions and possibly lawsuits.

On the other other hand, there haven't been any consequences for the perpetrators of the online harassment of Kathy Sierra that I've been able to see...

And, of course, if you're under 18 years old, you're a minor and you don't have the same rights as everyone else, but that's a separate matter.

Ridiculing a teacher on the internet is no different than ridiculing a teacher in the pizza shop.

This isn't quite accurate. Ridiculing a teacher in the pizza shop involves, at most, a half-dozen people and leaves no lasting record. This is more like ridiculing a teacher in a community newspaper, only with wider distribution.

All that said, I agree that the schools are, for the most part, overreaching. However, creating fake accounts and impersonating other people is, at the very least, a violation of Facebook's terms of use (or it should be!), and anyone doing that (student or not), should loose their Facebook account.

L-girl said...

On the other hand, if people in their 20s and 30s created fake Facebook entries about, say, their employers and posted about their boss masturbating at the office, there's a good chance they'd be facing disciplinary actions and possibly lawsuits.

If they did it on their own time and on their own computers, the employers would have a hard time with those lawsuits. Disciplinary actions, yes. Firing, yes. Lawsuits, maybe not.

This is more like ridiculing a teacher in a community newspaper, only with wider distribution.

The courts have been all over the place on this one. There's no clear legal consensus yet, that I'm aware of.

All that said, I agree that the schools are, for the most part, overreaching.

Over-reaching is my main point. It's not taking place on school grounds or with school property or affecting their performance at school. That should end the school's input into the student's life, in my opinion.

Mike said...

Unfortunately this doesn't surprise me. I've always thought half of the things taught in Elementary and High School education is propaganda anyway. A way of molding children into pegs to fit in the holes of society, and weed out those who don't want to fit and label them as misfits. Repeatedly tell them they will be failures in the real world because of it. Killing their will so they don't cause "problems" by being free thinkers.

I don't comment much, but always feel strongly about the subject of schools and their role of keeping the status quo within the government, society (and religion!).

Scott M. said...

Plenty of people in their 20s and 30s and beyond post stupid and obnoxious things online. They're allowed.

Depends on your definintion of "allowed". If they're making defamatory comments about someone that would be classified as libel, it's not actually "allowed". They may get away with it, but it's still illegal.

Why can the school tell a student they're not allowed to do this on their own time?

...

If they did it on their own time and on their own computers, the employers would have a hard time with those lawsuits. Disciplinary actions, yes. Firing, yes. Lawsuits, maybe not.

So what's the difference between schools offering disciplinary actions and employers doing the same?

L-girl said...

Mike, no, it's not surprising in the least. Just irritating, and in my opinion, wrong. I agree with you about schools, like organized religion, functioning as conformity police in most aspects of life.

L-girl said...

If they're making defamatory comments about someone that would be classified as libel, it's not actually "allowed".

You seem to have the idea that making defamatory comments is somehow illegal or grounds for lawsuit. Look around at the mass media: does it look like making defamatory comments is illegal? Is every politician and public figure suing every website, author, editor, publisher, and broadcaster for libel?

The standard for what constitutes a libelous statement is a lot higher than just "he said something bad about me". It's not even "he said something bad about me and it's not true".

So what's the difference between schools offering disciplinary actions and employers doing the same?

I guess I wasn't clear. I was merely assenting to James's comment that this happens, not that I approve of it.

I despise employers' encroachment into employees' personal lives. Harassment in the workplace is wrong, of course. But what employees do and say on their own time is not their employer's business.


Wal-Mart, for example, does random drug testing on Mondays to see if their employees smoke pot on the weekend. I don't think it's any of their business what their employees do when they're not at work. Likewise for internet usage.

M@ said...

I'm not a teacher, and I don't pretend to know what it's like to deal with high school kids today. But to me it seems that getting upset about what kids say about you online validates those statements, and gives those kids the upper hand in the relationship? Wouldn't it be better to ignore that kind of crap?

My father is a high school teacher, and although he's aware of ratemyteacher.com, he doesn't go to read his own reviews. I think that's about the best way to handle this kind of thing. When the reaction is as immature as the original action, you're not going to better the situation with it.

David Cho said...

They were all less than 12 when they died???

Noah's 11 now.

impudent strumpet said...

They could have handled the situation so much better by emphasizing that the problem was not that the student was dissing the teacher, but that the student was saying falsely, and in a public and archivable medium, that the teacher had masturbated in the classroom (which, if it had actually happen, would at least trigger an investigation, if not completely end their teaching career.) As they handled the situation IRL, they made it sound like it was just for dissing the teacher, and the punishment for mocking the teacher's clothes or verbal tics or calling them an asshole would be the same. Especially since these kids were, what, 13? And 13 year olds don't have much of a grasp of nuance. By not emphasizing that nuance, they did everyone a disservice.

L-girl said...

They were all less than 12 when they died???

Noah's 11 now.


Don't worry, Noah's in great shape. He's got a lot of years ahead of him. And we expect the same from Cody!

Gypsy aged very quickly. She was mostly Shepherd, and their lifespans can be shorter.

Clyde had a congenital heart defect that suddenly gave out. She seemed so young and full of life, but this took her very suddenly.

And you know about Buster. He had so many health issues, any one of which could have killed him.

This is why it took a great leap of faith to get another dog. And we're so glad we did it!

Anyway, don't worry about Noah and I'll try not to worry about Cody. :)

L-girl said...

ImpStrump, you make a good point there. They used the blunt instrument approach. Many of the cases where this kind of thing happened, the kids *were* just dissing the teacher, not making specific sexual accusations.

M@, I agree with this, too. Making such a huge fuss over these things just gives them more creedence. I imagine the school thinks that ignoring them would set a bad precedent, but this approach feeds into the kids' attention-getting needs.

M. Yass said...

Couple things here. One, anyone that thin-skinned has no business teaching at all, much less high school.

Two, I had more than my share of teachers who were just there for the state paycheck and biding their time until they could retire. In those cases, the truth hurts, doesn't it? Blessedly, I had many more teachers who cared deeply about their students and who persevered in the face of crap pay and no respect. I'm of the belief that good teachers should make what professional athletes make and vice versa.

I've always thought half of the things taught in Elementary and High School education is propaganda anyway. A way of molding children into pegs to fit in the holes of society, and weed out those who don't want to fit and label them as misfits. Repeatedly tell them they will be failures in the real world because of it. Killing their will so they don't cause "problems" by being free thinkers.

EXACTLY! You know the euphemisms they use: "doesn't work and play well with the other children," "has a problem with authority," "has a poor attitude." All of these are code for "excessively questions the propaganda we're shoving down his throat." Or, "is showing signs of developing into a free thinker rather than a good little consumer and corporate automaton." Even more likely, "may resist being asked to put on a uniform and shout 'SIEG HEIL!' when asked to participate in the upcoming invasion of Iran."

The biggest lie I can think of is, "work hard and you'll be rewarded." It seems much more often the case that "work hard" means you'll be given the work of the three people they fired last week just before they outsource your job to Western Elbonia.

David Cho said...

Anyway, don't worry about Noah and I'll try not to worry about Cody. :)

Deal!

I've heard that big boned dogs have shorter life spans, the classic example being Great Danes.

Can't tell if Cody is big boned or not, but she does look very good. Noah is tall and lanky, so I take comfort in that :).

M. Yass said...

In light of everything that's going on in the U.S., this picture kinda makes ya think, doesn't it?

L-girl said...

Oops, wrong thread, David. And yes, Great Danes are a heartbreak waiting to happen. They're old at 8. Fortunately for us, those dogs make Noah and Cody look tiny. :)

loneprimate said...

I’m afraid my reaction is diametrically the reverse in this case. I am in solid accord with the wisdom of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "My right to swing my fist ends where my neighbor's nose begins."

Freedom of speech is a right like any other. It is not absolute. It is a means to an end, and ought to be subject to reasonable limits and used responsibly. The right to own and keep arms is guaranteed in the United States, and so long as you store them properly, use them only for hunting and defending your home, you really have no problem. But the moment you exercise your “right” by blowing someone’s head off, then you’ve got problems.

Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about young people being silenced for speaking up, for pointing out injustices or bad practices or even espousing unpopular ideas. We’re talking about people using their right to free speech for nothing higher than savaging another human being, gratuitously doing whatever they can short of physical assault to make his or her life a miserable waking nightmare. This is not an appropriate or responsible exercise of a Charter or First Amendment right. This is harassment. I will go so far as to declare it a form of torture. It is not deserving of respect or constitutional protection in the manner of the exchange of ideas that hope to better society.

In this case, the target is a teacher. That the victim is an adult no doubt softens the blow, but it’s not always the case. In fact, it’s rarely the case. When I was in grade two, there was a bright, vivacious little girl named Karen. For the sake of clarity, I’ll call her brunette Karen, because there was another, her tormentor, blonde Karen. Blonde Karen was that girl in most classes who is popular, listened to, around whom a coterie forms and by whom its actions, opinions, and prejudices are shaped. For whatever reason, blonde Karen took a focused dislike of brunette Karen… perhaps the slight was nothing more than a shared name. She made it one of the purposes of her life to make brunette Karen’s life a misery. That girl was ostracized, tormented, taunted, even physically abused. Games were made up in which the other children tagged one another with brunette Karen’s “germs, no return”. This program of persecution spread to the girls outside the clique, and to the boys as well. Before long, brunette Karen was the lowest common denominator: the one person anyone could pick on, and everyone did… all too often including, I’m ashamed to say, me. I wish I could go back and make a difference. I wish just one teacher had seen it for what it was and lowered the boom, freed us from blonde Karen’s tyranny and our own worst instincts, but none of them ever did. Day after day after day, year after grinding year, all the kids in her life used her as an emotional toilet. What did we do to her soul? What became of her? I’ll never know… but I do know it was still going on when I left that school in grade six, four years later.

So when I hear now that what was once a process of destruction limited to one or two dozen people at the most is now being broadcast for millions to see and in which to participate, I am filled with horror at the thought of what kids today bearing the stigma of unpopularity must be facing. I ask myself why we don’t just cut to the chase and re-open the arenas, where we can all have a good laugh as people are torn to shreds… at least their suffering is over quickly. No, I cannot see this as a small matter, nor hold the rights of torturers to speak as they please above those of innocent people to simply live their lives unmolested. Would I ban it? No. It’s too difficult to draw a hard line; too much of it is a grey area and it risks shutting down legitimate criticism. But I would take the first instance of such activity as an alarm requiring a response. People who do things like this need to be called on the carpet and made aware in the strongest terms that this behaviour is disruptive to a free and peaceful society and is not acceptable; the earlier they are made aware of that, the better.

Into the mouth of Miss Sook, Truman Capote put the words that ought to be scribed on every human heart: “there is only one unpardonable sin — deliberate cruelty.” In cases where it hasn’t been by nature, it needs to be chiseled in by a human hand.

L-girl said...

I am in solid accord with the wisdom of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "My right to swing my fist ends where my neighbor's nose begins."

I agree completely!

I think you're misinterpreting that statement. Swinging your fist at someone's nose is an action. Words don't touch the person's nose. Under the "where my neighbour's nose begins" doctrine, all written and verbal speech is
protected.

I agree with you about bullying. But I have a very hard time construing kids posting something about a teacher as bullying.

There's no accounting for cruelty. Many teachers are deliberately cruel in the classroom every day, and kids are their trapped victims. Kids can't get away with that, because they're not in authority. So they push back a little outside of the classroom.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, LP! We miss you around here.

L-girl said...

This is not an appropriate or responsible exercise of a Charter or First Amendment right.

The First Amendment says nothing about responsible exercise. First Amendment rights apply to responsible and irresponsible use of speech, except in cases of deliberate public harm (shouting fire in a crowded theatre is the usual example).

I can't speak to Charter rights, but these students' First Amendment rights would be being violated, because when you're under 18, your rights are up for grabs.

Lone said...

Words don't touch the person's nose.

Oh, don't they? Well, all I can say is that experience hasn't led me to that conclusion.

The First Amendment says nothing about responsible exercise.

Neither does the Second, though. Are there to be no court-mandated or legislated limits there either? Lots of people think so...

What these students did was not an exercise in free speech; it constituted an instance of libel. It was the publication of an untruth for the purposes of maligning someone -- and in a way that could potentially get that person fired, or at least cast a shadow on the rest of their career. That's not at all in the same category as burning the flag or wearing an anti-war t-shirt or protesting the food choices in the cafeteria. I think it brings the institution of free speech into disrepute to suggest that lying about someone to publicly humiliate them ought to be seen as just as sacrosanct as being about to tell an inconvenient truth.

I think the results were entirely appropriate, given the ages of the people involved and the circumstances. If being under 18 meant their rights were "up for grabs", it also meant that they didn't wind up in civil court. People cut them some slack. Hopefully as adults who would be held responsible, they'll be wise enough not to make the same mistake.

L-girl said...

What I meant about the nose is not that words can't hurt; of course they can. I meant that you are, I believe, misinterpreting Holmes's famous quotation. He was arguing in favour of unrestricted speech, not against it.

You make good points, as others have. However, I disagree with them. I am opposed to any restrictions on free speech and any punishment of speech in any form, whether it be for the political cause or just stupidity.

It's odd that so many people believe this constitutes libel and that the perpetrators, if adults, could be successfully sued.