Illinois principal suspends students for comments on Twitter and threatens to suspend those who protest decision
According to a report from the Student Press Law Center, Granite City High School Principal Jim Greenwald has suspended 10 students for comments they made on Twitter, and the Illinois principal says more suspensions could follow for students protesting the school’s decision. The suspensions grew out of a school inquiry into one student’s sexually charged tweet about a teacher. In the original Twitter post, the student called the teacher a “MILF.” The tweet was then retweeted by two students and favorited by a third.
Those four students were suspended. School officials then found other posts, including one from a female student who joked about blowing up the school so students would not have to attend class. She and three students who retweeted that post were also suspended. The suspensions have prompted backlash from other students, many of whom took to Twitter to express their anger. Students have posted fliers around the school and there are plans to make t-shirts as well.
According to C.J. Taylor, a senior who was not suspended but who has distributed fliers, he and two other students were called to Greenwald’s office recently after he was seen putting up fliers in the hallway regarding the suspended students. One of those students was then suspended, Taylor said. Greenwald said students who continue to protest will face suspensions.
DeAndre Williams, one of the four students suspended for tweeting about the teacher, said he was not at school when he retweeted the post, which he shared because he thought it was funny, but now acknowledges it was disrespectful. Greenwald said it does not matter if the tweets were made at home or at school, or whether students posted the tweet or simply shared it. He said the school does not typically monitor students’ social media activity, but will get involved if threats are made or if a post “crosses the line in terms of ethics.”
According to the school’s student handbook, students can be punished for any “negative posting” made during or outside of school hours that causes teachers or students “to feel threatened or compromised.” Disciplinary action will be taken against students for online posts “containing threats, bullying, inappropriate pictures, allegations of inappropriate behavior, or such content that is likely to cause disruption in the school.” Greenwald expressed disbelief at what the students had posted. He said he told them that if a teacher had said that to a colleague online, “we’d tell them we’re cleaning your office out the next day.”
The suspensions are the latest punishment to befall high school students for off-campus speech. Generally, student speech is looked at through the lens of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In Tinker, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students’ First Amendment rights do not diminish at school unless the speech is shown to cause a “substantial and material disruption” to the school day. Greenwald said the tweets had not caused a disruption by the time students were suspended Wednesday, but since then, there’s been “a major disruption.”
The tweet about blowing up the school would be viewed under a different standard than Tinker. “True threats” are not protected by the First Amendment, although several students said it was clear the tweet was not serious.
Source: Student Press Law Center, 10/27/12, By Sara Gregory
[Editor's Note: In October 2012, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in S.J.W. v. Lee's Summit R-7 Sch. Dist., which held that a federal district court had erred in granting two students a preliminary injunction barring a school district from suspending the students for posts to an online blog. The panel concluded that regardless of whether the speech occurred on-campus or off-campus, the speech should be analyzed under the substantial disruption standard established in Tinker. The panel rejected the students’ contention that off-campus speech is constitutionally protected and is not subject to school discipline even if the speech is directed at the school or specified students.
In June 2012, Legal Clips summarized an Associated Press (AP) story on NECN.com, which reported that in response to a federal lawsuit filed by three students expelled after commenting on Facebook about wanting to kill classmates, Griffith Public Schools (GPS) disputed that the comments were jokes and that it had violated their free speech rights. Instead, GPS charged that the online postings “and this disturbing conversation posed a ‘true threat’ and two of the threatened students were so fearful of the threats that they missed classes and school.”]