New Internet Law: Facebook Freedom of Speech Schools

An aggressive new Internet law was introduced in North Carolina, making it a criminal offense for a student to release statements online with the intention of intimidating or tormenting school faculty.

In Minnesota, a U.S. District Court maintained that compelling students to hand over access to their social media accounts is a violation of their rights under the First and Fourth Amendments. The case involves a 12-yer-old girl who posted one comment about a school employee on Facebook at home, and followed it up with another. School officials promptly questioned the student, which resulted in disciplinary actions. She also had to provide access to her email accounts, which they searched.

Based on Tinker v. Des Moines and other precedents, the court maintained that school authorities could not punish statements made away from school, which are guaranteed by the First Amendment, unless they are genuine threats or intended to affect the school environment. They must also be so inflammatory that they pose a significant safety risk, or some other significant disruption, at the school.

Attorneys for the school indicated that the protection of out-of-school statements was unclear when the alleged violation took place. However, that was dismissed by the court, which stated that a general rule that schools had no right to regulate inappropriate speech that takes place out of school was well-established long ago.

In addition, Bradley Shear, an attorney and an authority on privacy laws related to social media, states that any public school requiring students to provide their social media user names, or allow access to digital content protected by their password, or who install third-party software, regardless of the motive, are clearly violating the First and Fourth Amendments.

In view of this, our courts may soon face more challenging cases related to off-campus speech. The main hurdle appears to be defining the “true threat” standard for online interactions.

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