Archive for December, 2009

For Students, a Right to be Mean Online?

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

By Victoria Kim
Los Angeles Times | December 13, 2009

With schools meting out discipline for what they see as cyber-bullying, some courts, parents and free speech advocates are pushing back.

One morning in May 2008, an eighth-grader walked into Janice Hart’s office at a Beverly Hills school crying.

She was upset and humiliated and couldn’t possibly go to class, the girl told the counselor. The night before, a classmate had posted a video on YouTube with a group of other eighth-graders bad-mouthing her, calling her “spoiled,” a “brat” and a “slut.” Text and instant messages had been flying since. Half the class must have seen it by now, she told Hart.

Hart took the problem to the vice principal and principal, who took it to a district administrator, who asked the district’s lawyers what they could do about it. In the end, citing “cyber-bullying” concerns, school officials suspended the girl who posted the video for two days. That student took the case to federal court, saying her free speech rights had been violated.

Last month, a federal judge in Los Angeles sided with her, saying the school had gone too far. Amid rising concerns over cyber-bullying, and even calls for criminalization, some courts, parents and free-speech advocates are pushing back. Students, they say, have a 1st Amendment right to be nasty in cyberspace.

“To allow the school to cast this wide a net and suspend a student simply because another student takes offense to their speech, without any evidence that such speech caused a substantial disruption of the school’s activities, runs afoul” of the law, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson wrote in a 60-page opinion.

“The court cannot uphold school discipline of student speech simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments,” he wrote.

Schools’ ability to limit student speech, from armbands protesting the Vietnam War to banners promoting marijuana use, is an age-old issue that has been repeatedly tried and tested in the courts. But with teens’ social lives moving increasingly to cyberspace, where what might have previously been private bickering is reproduced, publicized and documented for all to see, school officials find themselves on unfamiliar ground in dealing with e-mails, instant messages, profile pages, videos and the like that may result in hurt feelings or something more serious.

Free-speech advocates said the notoriety of recent cases, such as the Missouri girl who committed suicide after a mean-spirited MySpace message was sent, have led schools to overreact and excessively crack down on student expression when it comes to the Internet.

“It’s better to have a lawsuit and lose some money than have a situation where a student commits suicide,” said Eugene Volokh, a 1st Amendment expert and UCLA law professor who has criticized a bill in Congress that would make cyber-bullying punishable by up to two years in prison. “People don’t appreciate how much the 1st Amendment protects not only political and ideological speech, but also personal nastiness and chatter. . . . If all cruel teasing led to suicide, the human race would be extinct.”

The murkiness of this area of law and educational policy has resulted in legal challenges across the country over school officials’ restriction of student speech or discipline meted out in such cases.

Attorneys and experts said court decisions have been “all over the map,” offering little clarity to confused school administrators. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to take up a case involving student speech online; the governing decision is from the 1969 Tinker vs. Des Moines School District case, which held that student speech could not be limited unless it caused substantial disruption on campus.

“We’re in a rapidly evolving area of law with relatively few guidelines and remarkably little that has been charted,” said Robert O’Neil, director of the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

O’Neil said that when a true threat is made, and when speech is made using school computers, schools have clear authority to regulate students’ speech. But when something falls in the gray area between an expressed threat and mere teasing, and students are accessing the Internet outside the school’s walls, administrators are faced with a tricky calculus.

“Everybody is justifiably confused about what they can and cannot do,” said Witold Walczak, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Pennsylvania, a student sued his school district after he was suspended for 10 days and placed in an alternative education program for creating what he claimed was a parody MySpace profile of the school principal. On the website, the student referred to the principal as a “big steroid freak,” and a “big whore,” among other things, and stated that he was “too drunk to remember” the date of his birthday.

U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry found that even though the profile was unquestionably “lewd, profane and sexually inappropriate,” the school did not have the right to restrict the student’s speech because school officials were not able to establish that the profile caused enough of a disruption on campus.

“The mere fact that the Internet may be accessed at school does not authorize school officials to become censors of the World Wide Web,” he wrote.

Walczak, the ACLU attorney who argued the case, said censoring is often the “easy way out” for schools that want to be able to say they did something about the situation rather than stand by and watch.

“The Internet doesn’t change what students say about other students or school officials, it just makes it more apparent to a larger number of people,” he said.

The school district has appealed to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, where a decision is pending.

SF Bay Schools Phase Out Gay-friendly Curriculum

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

By LISA LEFF | Mercury News

ALAMEDA, Calif.—A San Francisco Bay area school board will use broad lessons against bias to replace a curriculum against bullying gay people that had become a national centerpiece in the opposition to same-sex marriage.

The vote by the Alameda Board of Education on Tuesday did little to ease tensions in the island city near Oakland. A lawsuit and threats of recalling school board members accompanied debate over the so-called Lesson 9 curriculum adopted in May to prevent anti-gay bullying.

Gay parents in the community wanted their children protected from bullying, while other parents argued that elementary school is too early to talk to students about gay people.

The new anti-bullying lessons approved by the board, at the recommendation of School Superintendent Kirsten Vital, will be supplemented by children’s books that explicitly address six specific forms of bias, including against gays.

“This has torn apart our community,” said school trustee Trish Herrera Spencer, the board member most opposed to the gay curriculum and who opposed adding the supplemental books. She said the board’s latest action did not take into consideration “the strong beliefs” of all in the community.

The 45-minute Lesson 9, which was to be taught once a year in each grade starting with kindergarten, sparked a lawsuit, accusations that religious families were being discriminated against and threats of a recall election against the three board members who approved it.

Vital said her recommendation was meant to counter complaints from parents opposed to the original lesson because it highlighted only one type of bullying.

“There is not an off-the-shelf, perfect curriculum that is going to work for our community,” Vital said, explaining that she wants to solicit book recommendations, bring them back to the school board for approval in a few months and then work with teachers to develop accompanying lesson plans in time for the 2010-11 academic year.

Several parents said they did not trust a teachers’ committee to pick books that would both satisfy gay and lesbian parents and parents with religious views that do not condone homosexuality.

“Freedom of religion is protected from harassment and discrimination from anyone. It may be of no consequence to some, but it is a very integral part of many traditional families and should be honored,” said Kellie Wood, who has three children in Alameda schools and is part of a group circulating recall election petitions. “If we’re all honest, the friction between two protected classes, in particular, will not go away.”

Kathy Passmore, a lesbian mother of two, said she hears students using anti-gay language in her job as a sixth grade teacher in Alameda. She urged the school board to retain the spirit of Lesson 9.

“The children of gay families exist and are attending ASUD schools every single day,” she said. “They are here.”

Alameda, an island city that foots Oakland and is home to a Coast Guard installation and a former Naval base that is being eyed for housing, is the latest community to be divided by its school district’s desire to curb anti-gay bullying and the concerns of parents who do not want their children to hear about gay and lesbian issues in school.

During last year’s campaign to pass a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages in California, the measure’s sponsors ran commercials featuring a Massachusetts couple who unsuccessfully sued their local district for the right to pull their child out of anti-bullying lessons that included references to gay households.

A year later, the same public relations firm that developed that ad developed a new one for the campaign to outlaw gay marriage in Maine focusing on a second-grade picture book that was part of Alameda’s Lesson 9. The book, “Who’s In A Family,” contains pictures of families headed by grandparents, single parents and gay parents, among others.

A dozen Alameda families sued the school district earlier this year over its contention that parents did not have to be notified in advance when teachers planned to give the lessons so they could keep their children from receiving them. Last week, an Alameda Superior Court judge sided with the school district, ruling that a state law allowing parents to have their “opt-out” of discussions about human sexuality did not apply to Lesson 9.

Kevin Snider, a lawyer with the conservative Pacific Justice Institute who represented the Alameda families, said before the school board’s vote that his clients would not appeal the judge’s ruling if the school board eliminated Lesson 9. He did not immediately return a call Wednesday for clarification on whether the board’s action satisfied that condition.

West Linn Teacher’s Censorship Lesson Spurs Outcry, Apology

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

By Nicole Dungca
The Oregonian | December 8, 2009

School officials agreed Tuesday that a West Linn teacher crossed a line when he used sexual vulgarity as part of a classroom lesson on censorship.

Michael Diltz, an Athey Creek Middle School teacher and librarian, wrote two profane words on the board in front of eighth-graders last week as a part of a districtwide “Banned/Challenged Book” project that explores the limits of free speech. Diltz was using the words to illustrate how language can often lead to the banning of books, said Assistant Superintendent Thayne Balzer.

Reached at the school Tuesday, Diltz said school officials had not authorized him to discuss the incident but expressed dismay at the fallout. “I just wish it hadn’t backfired like this,” he said.

On Monday, parents objected at a school board meeting. School board members said they supported the banned-book program but not Diltz’s use of the objectionable words. Superintendent Roger Woehl agreed. “We still don’t think it was good judgment to use the language,” he said.

In past years, teachers have not used profanity as part of the project, and the objections to last week’s lessons were the first regarding any aspect of the program, Woehl said.

Last week, Athey Creek Principal Carol Egan issued an apology to parents through an e-mail list.

“It was meant to provoke student understanding and experience how words, taken out of context, can lose their significance. When taken out of context, an author’s words can move a community to ban that author’s book from a school library,” Egan wrote.

The district refused to comment on any administrative actions with Diltz, who is in his second year at Athey Creek and his fifth within the district. Woehl called him an excellent teacher.

Several parents phoned in their support for the teacher, with some supporting the actual lesson, said Woehl.

Students and parents leaving school Tuesday had mixed reactions.

“It’s probably inappropriate, but it’s probably nothing that they haven’t heard before,” said Shannon Anderson, the mother of an Athey Creek eighth-grader.

Terrell Eaton, another parent, regretted that she had not complained after hearing about the situation. “I was surprised and upset,” she said. “I thought he could have taught that lesson in a different way.”

Eaton’s son, Ellis, thought the lesson was a bit “odd,” but he wasn’t offended. “I thought it was fine,” Ellis Eaton, 14, said. “It was kind of funny.”

The banned-book curriculum, which the district has taught for 10 years, requires students to read a book that has been banned or challenged outside of the district. Afterward, students write an essay that argues why a book should or shouldn’t be banned.

The books range from Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” to E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.”

Colleges Are Urged to Defend Free Speech Against Threats of Violence

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

By Peter Schmidt
12/9/09 |

Citing Yale University Press’s recent decision to remove all images of Muhammad from a scholarly book in response to fears their publication would trigger violence, a long list of academic and free-speech groups today called on colleges and universities “to exercise moral and intellectual leadership” and stand up for free expression.

A joint statement issued by the groups, which include the American Association of University Professors and the College Art Association, characterizes Yale’s decision as one of several recent developments that “suggest that our longstanding commitment to the free exchange of ideas is in peril of falling victim to a spreading fear of violence.”

Among other incidents the statement cites are a 2005 decision by Hamilton College, in New York, to cancel a speech by Ward Churchill, then a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in response to threats of violence, and a decision last year by the San Francisco Art Institute to close a controversial video exhibition in response to threats of violence by animal-rights activists.

“The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it,” the statement says. It calls on higher-education institutions “to stand up for certain basic principles: that the free exchange of ideas is essential to liberal democracy; that each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own views without fear of bodily harm; and that the suppression of ideas is a form of repression used by authoritarian regimes around the world to control and dehumanize their citizens and squelch opposition.”

Among the other organizations that signed the statement is the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 50 national organizations that previously had joined other groups in sending Yale officials a letter protesting the university’s decision to remove the cartoons from the book The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen. Other signatories to the statement include the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the International Publishers Association, the Modern Language Association, and both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.