YOUNG VOICES: Students deserve right to free speech

2013-02-11T00:00:00Z 2013-02-11T08:25:04Z YOUNG VOICES: Students deserve right to free speechBy Beatriz Costa-Lima nwitimes.com
February 11, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Take a minute and imagine if your boss followed you home every day. In fact, he followed you wherever you went when you went off work. You’re sitting at dinner with your family, and there’s your boss standing in the corner watching. You go to the mall on a Saturday, and your boss follows behind. Any time you said or did something that your boss didn't particularly like, you’d be punished.

It sounds ridiculous, right? What right does your boss have imposing on your personal life?

Yet that’s exactly what some Indiana legislators want to do students.

Even though First Amendment rights are held so dear to this nation, when it comes to students, too many people turn into hypocrites and are ready to strip away rights that they would be appalled if someone tried to take away from them.

In January 2012, Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford sponsored HB 1169, the Restoring School Discipline Act. The bill would have allowed Indiana public school administrators to punish students who do or say anything that might “reasonably be considered to be an interference with school purposes or an educational function,” including otherwise legal speech off campus.

Administrators can already reprimand students for illegal activities, such as trafficking illegal substances. However, House Bill 1169 would have omitted the word “unlawful” from current law, thus expanding administrators power in dangerously vague terms. However, the Indiana School Board Association and other organizations reacted negatively to the bill, worrying it could infringe on student First Amendment rights. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana called it an off-campus “overreach.”

Indiana HB 1169 is back, only this time it has a new name: HB 1015.

Koch formed HB 1015 in response to negative reactions to the previous bill, but the new bill is still too vague. The bill reads that “a student may be suspended or expelled subject to school discipline, including suspension and expulsion, for engaging in unlawful activity a delinquent, criminal, or tortious act committed by the student against another student or a teacher on or off school grounds if: delinquent, criminal, or tortious act violates school rules … and may reasonably be considered to be an a substantial interference with school purposes or an educational function.”

But it doesn't end there. There is another dangerous bill: HB 1364. This bill would prohibit creating fake profiles of school employees, posting “private, personal, or sexual information” about school employees, posting “real or doctored” photos of school employees, tampering with data on a school employee’s computer, or continual communication with a school employee. Violations could lead to court-ordered injunctions and fines of up to $1,000.

Legislators claim the intent is to aid the growing problem of cyberbullying and cheating. The issue of cyberbullying does have importance and administrators and lawmakers should address it. However, this bill is not the way to do so. Student’s rights need to remain protected.

It sounds noble at first. Cyberbullying is a growing problem in the country and it needs to be addressed in schools and homes. However, this bill is not the way to do so. The wording will undoubtedly cause a chilling effect.

Put it into perspective for a minute. Imagine if the government forbade any parody Facebook and twitter accounts regarding government officials or government policies. Or if they forbade the creation of political cartoons in fear that they were too mean toward government officials.

That is what these bills do to students. Despite their age, students are still citizens and deserve their first amendment rights. These rights already are limited when students are in school, to extend these restrictions outside of the school would be preposterous and unconstitutional.

In reality, the bill would do little to address bullying and cheating and instead give administrators practically unlimited authority of student behavior outside of school. The main issue with the creation of these parody accounts on social media sites is that they can be made anonymously. Therefore, this bill would not be effective because students could still find ways around it without others knowing. Instead, what will occur is an administrator punishing a student newspaper because what they publish doesn't go along with their school mission. Or maybe a student receives punishment for complaining in a Facebook status about how much he dislikes his math teacher.

In Morse v. Frederick, the U.S. Supreme Court’s, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in an opinion that giving schools authority over anything that “interferes with a school’s educational mission,” can be dangerous.

“The ‘educational mission’ of the public schools is defined by the elected and appointed public officials with authority over the schools and by the school administrators and faculty. As a result, some public schools have defined their educational missions as including the inculcation of whatever political and social views are held by the members of these groups,” Alito wrote.

Cyber-bullying needs to be tackled by more proactive education about proper use of media in schools and at home, not by granting school administrators with unlimited authority. If you think school administrators wouldn't wrongly use this extra authority to limit student speech they found uncomfortable, then I suggest you take a look at the cases of Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, or just take a look at what happened to the Statesman newspaper and the administrators at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., in 2009.

In the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the United States Supreme Court tackled the issue of student free speech rights in 1969. The opinion of the court reads, “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school, as well as out of school, are ‘persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the state must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the state.”

Beatriz Costa-Lima of Munster is a freshman at the University of Missouri. The opinions are the writer's.

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