Want to express your opinion about a teacher online when you’re off-campus? Thanks to a landmark ruling in a Florida law case, that’s now protected free speech and not a cause for accusations of cyberbullying (as long as its not inciting law-breaking.)
This news concerns the Katherine Evans/Sarah Phelps case in Florida, spurred when Evans launched a special Facebook page in 2008 dedicated to her English teacher Sarah Phelps. This page was not of the usual “fan” variety however, as its title betrays: “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!” There was a pic of Phelps, and Evans encouraged other students to join and voice their disapproval (“feelings of hatred” even) of Phelps. The page was too much for Phelps, who called the event cyberbullying–a move that resulted in both the reprimanding and suspension of Evans and the subsequent lawsuit Evans brought to fight the school’s suppression of her freedom.
But Florida Magistrate Barry Gurber recently ruled in favor of Evans, noting that Evans was merely exercising her First Amendment right to speak freely, even if it resulted in hateful text being published. Furthermore, Evans actions occurred off-campus, in her private time, didn’t directly disrupt school activities and “was not lewd, vulgar, threatening, or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior.”
The school in question seems to have cracked down too heavily on student activity that occurred outside of school and beyond normal school hours–essentially the school was trying to control the student’s actions when it was none of their business. This has always been a tricky issue for educational establishments, and particularly nowadays when online social networking lets students chatter and publicly publish information in ways that would’ve never been possible before. For example, while my school days were in the pre-dawn of the Internet, there was still a policy that on the journey into school and home (and particularly when you were wearing school uniform) you were acting as ambassadors of the school, and had to comport yourself accordingly–the school was effectively extending its reach beyond the school gate, but for arguably sensible reasons.
The Evans-Phelps case is much more tricky, challenging, and directly controversial, but illustrates well the challenges that schools face in the digitally-connected age…particularly when students are more technologically advanced than the teaching staff.