Has cyberbullying become the disorderly conduct of the online world—an all-purpose legal bludgeon with which to thump innocent people when the authorities don’t like what they’re doing? That might be the takeaway from an incident in San Francisco, where three high school seniors were suspended for saying mean things about their teachers in online postings. They were reinstated only after civil liberties groups intervened.
In March, after students at George Washington High School used their home computers to post parodies and nasty comments about teachers and school administrators on Tumblr, the principal interrogated them and decided to suspend them for three days, accusing them of bullying and disrupting school activities. The students also were barred from their prom and from graduation ceremonies.
The disciplinary measures ran afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines. In that 1969 case, the Court held that “a prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”
With the law clear, school officials quickly backed down after they were contacted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Asian Law Caucus. “We absolutely recognize and value our students’ right to free speech,” Gentle Blythe, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Unified School District, assured the investigative journalism website California Watch.
While the students’ disciplinary records have been expunged, they still lost three days of school. And California’s law empowering school officials to penalize cyberbullying remains on the books.