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Speech Rights, Discipline and Cyberbullying

This was an interesting discussion at the Drummon Woodsum, Technology Policy and the Law workshop.  In it, questions were posed about how to react when students post mean-spirited things about other students on social media sites, via email, etc.  According to the presenters, often times schools will discipline students when it is reported to them that offensive or inappropriate material was posted to a web site, and school officials may even force a student to remove the offending post.  Is this okay?

The Tinker Case protects the free speech of students and has been the accepted standard for many years.  The guidelines provided yesterday basically are these:

If it happens outside the school day, or off site (non-school event, trip, etc.), then the school cannot discipline the student nor require the offending material be removed.  In other words, if a student goes home and posts something mean about another student on Facebook at night, the school does not have the right to discipline the student who posted the material.

There are exceptions to this standard.
1. If the material is uploaded during school, or from the school network, then the school can step in and require the removal of the material and may discipline the student.
2. If the speech causes substantial disruptions to the education environment.

Substantial disruption has to be more than someone being upset, having their feelings hurt, crying, or there being a general “buzz” of excitement amidst the school population- and the substantial disruption must be the result of the offending material.


Cyberbullying is bullying through the use of technology or electronic communication, including any electronic device or digital system if it happens on school; grounds, or during school activities.  If it takes place outside school it is still cyberbullying if it

  • Physically harms the student
  • Places a student in reasonable fear of harm or damage
  • Creates an intimidating or hostile educational environment
  • Interferes with students’ academic performance or ability to participate in, or benefit from, services, activities or privileges

What constitutes a reasonable threat?  Drummond and Woodsum provided these two guides:
1. Would a reasonable recipient of the threat have interpreted the threat as a serious expression of intent to harm or cause injury to another?
2. If a speaker communicates the statement to the object of the purported threat, or to third party.

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