Last updated: August 11. 2014 12:59PM - 1520 Views
A Daily Journal editorial

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A school system in our state is spending taxpayer money to snoop on students’ Facebook and Twitter pages when they’re not in class. It continues a disturbing trend of extending public schools’ disciplinary authority into the home.

Jackson County Schools has hired a private company — Social Sentinel of Burlington, Vermont — to monitor students’ postings on social media. The pilot program is in place at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva, and as school districts become more tech-savvy, similar programs could spread throughout the Tar Heel State.

Parents are worried, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which fears an ever-increasing crackdown on student speech. ACLU spokesman Mike Meno said the social screening coupled with a vague and poorly worded state cyberbullying statute could saddle kids with criminal records for simple Facebook feuds.

“Teenagers often post things online that they don’t really mean,” Meno told the North Carolina News Service, “and I think it would be very regretful if a 16- or 17-year-old ended up facing criminal charges and perhaps a lifetime of consequences.”

The social screening raises important First Amendment issues. First, public schools are an arm of the government and must tread a fine line when they discipline students for speech. Courts have upheld punishments when student expression disrupts the educational environment or constitutes a true threat, but schools have shown a propensity to encroach on free-speech rights whenever someone takes offense.

Secondly, the mere presence of government-sanctioned social media monitors is likely to have a chilling effect on dialogue. Some students will be less likely to engage in meaningful but potentially controversial conversations online if they know Big Brother is looking over their shoulder.

Schools aren’t just infringing on the rights of their students. By imposing school discipline for off-campus conduct and speech, they encroach on parents’ authority in the home. As long as a teen’s online rantings and ravings don’t break the law, it’s Mom and Dad’s decision when to step in and pull the plug.

There are practical as well as moral reasons to stop principals from playing parent. When a school system drops the hammer for offensive speech, it often faces long and costly First Amendment battles in federal court at taxpayer expense. But Mom and Dad aren’t Uncle Sam, and there’s no higher court to which Junior can appeal a grounding or a suspension of home computer privileges.

The issue of off-campus speech has flummoxed its share of judges. Some take umbrage at schools that are too quick to punish, and others defer a little too much to administrators’ snap judgments.

The Supreme Court got it wrong in the 2007 case Morse v. Frederick. Justices ruled 5-4 that a school in Juneau, Alaska, was within its rights to suspend student Joseph Frederick, who displayed a banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” across from the school during an Olympic torch rally.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the case turned on the school’s interest in regulating speech that promotes illegal drug use. What the majority on the court overlooked is that Frederick stayed home from school and attended the torch rally as a private citizen, not as a student.

He was not entrusted to the school’s care that day and was not on school property. If Frederick needed to be punished, that decision should have rightly rested with his parents. As schools continue to push the boundary between classroom and home, we may see the day when the Supreme Court reverses itself on the Morse mistake.

We hope Richmond County Schools has more respect for its students, their parents and for the First Amendment than the school district in Jackson County. We don’t need social media speech police.

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