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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hostile Student Speech About School Officials

Thanks so much to Dan and the rest of PrawfsBlawg for letting me guest-blog this month.  In this final post, I wanted to briefly talk about my current paper, Badmouthing Authority: Hostile Speech About School Officials and the Limits of School Restrictions, which will be published in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal next year.

This past spring, while reviewing the most recent student internet speech cases in connection with teaching my Law & Education class, I suddenly realized something--an incredible number of these cases actually involved one specific type of speech: hostile speech about not fellow students, but school officials.  (Fake profile pages for school officials seem to be a particular favorite, with the profiles sometimes portraying them as pedophiles or drug users.)  I became very curious about various aspects of this issue.   First, I was interested in the legal, First Amendment aspect of it: how have courts traditionally approached hostile student speech about school employees when it occurs on campus, and how does that analysis change when the speech is on the internet?   But I was also curious about it from a psychological perspective--what prompts this sort of speech in the first place?   Why, when it occurs on the internet, is this speech often so strikingly vulgar?  Is it better, pedagogically speaking, for schools to just ignore such speech or should they respond to it in some way?  For that matter, are there legal constraints on a school's ability to just ignore such speech, given that the target is a school district employee?  (In certain cases, school district employees targeted by such speech have experienced significant emotional distress as a result, even leading to a leave of absence.)

You can read my take on those questions in the article, but I'd be very interested in readers' gut reaction to these questions, particularly the less purely legal ones.  In particular, should schools basically ignore such speech when it occurs on the internet? 

Posted by Emily Gold Waldman on September 30, 2010 at 10:18 PM | Permalink

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They *should* ignore it, just as they should be less afraid of student speech generally. But there is no incentive to ignore it, given the power the school and school officials enjoy to get their. The doctrine is so overwhelmingly stacked their favor, they know they can assert their will over students with relative impunity (and certainly with little fear of damages--only an injunction).

By the way, I am not sure this began with the internet, although it certainly has picked up speed. There are pre-internet (or at least pre-Facebook) cases in which a school prevailed where is suspended a student for things she said to and about a school official at the shopping mall on a weekend.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 1, 2010 7:09:34 AM

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