The student at risk of expulsion for posts he wrote on Xanga has had his case decided. In what I personally think is an overreaction, he has been placed in an alternative school for a semester and can return to Plainfield South High School next Spring if he obeys the rules of his new school. I previously wrote about this case in Blogspulsion?, More Blogspulsion (1), More Blogspulsion (2), and Gapers Block -- Looking Over Your Xanga. Rhymes With Right discussed the matter in Blog About School, Get Expelled.
As I interpret the various news reports and blog posts relating to this incident, the case begins with an act of vandalism at Plainfield South High School. One of the students punished for setting a fire in the bathroom wrote an angry post stating that he wondered why one of the assistant principals, whose name he did not know how to spell, didn't "just die." That student has been expelled from school for two years, and now faces a court case. Or rather, I believe the student who wrote that post has been expelled; no names were used so it is hard to say for certain.
In response to his punishment, a number of students who seem to associate with the fire-setters posted provocative and defiant posts at their Xanga sites. I cannot say whether they did so in response to some announced policy or did this as a spontaneous protest after learning that their friend had been suspended. One of them, Heckler3672bro, is the student at the center of this storm. After his first post, it appears the school made another announcement about student blogs, either to the whole school or to a particular group of students. It is this second announcement that led to the controversial post:
you are bully's. I feel threatened by you. if you don't like what you see here then do not come here its that simple. I'm pretty sure when you suspended Sam you brought her to tears, you are a bully and you make me sick. there's nothing you can do about us posting about parties we've been to and how much liquor we had or how much pot was smoked, the police need to do a better job, you are not the police. and how is it that you feel threatened what was said that was so threatening. I feel threatened by you, I cant even have a public web page with out you bullying me and telling me what has to be removed. where is this freedom of speech that this government is sworn to uphold? none of this is posted at school, its all posted from our home computers, and once we step foot into our homes we are not on school property any more. you are just power hungry, don't you ever think? did you stop to think that maybe this will make parents angry that you are bullying their children around? did you ever stop to think that maybe now you really are going to have a threat on your hands now that you have just pissed off kids for voicing their opinions? did you ever stop to think this will start a community backlash? The kids at Columbine did what they did because they were bullied. In my opinion you are the real threat here. None of us ever put in our xanga's that they were going to kill or bring harm to any one. we voiced our opinions. you are the real threat here. you are depriving us of our right to learn. now stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
This post is troubling enough to deserve investigation. What makes it troublesome to me is that it is so passive-aggressive: he seems to be saying that the school has a created circumstance in which violence is a natural response, and that therefore he is not responsible for any consequences of such a response. Given that this post resulted from a series of events that began with arson, it is not unreasonable for the school to be concerned. However, the school seems to have been unnaturally stubborn in interpreting this post as an active threat. From the Suburban Chicago News:
The mother said during the expulsion hearing the school district painted a picture of her son as someone who was dangerous.
In reality, she said he was just venting on his blog site about how he felt when the school disciplined his friends for what they posted on their Xanga sites.
"(School staff) kept saying he wanted people to die. He didn't threaten a single person," she said about the expulsion hearing that lasted about 4½ hours last month.
The mother said her son told the hearing officer, "I did not say I was going to be the Columbine student."
The school actually did something worse:
She said the school district also brought up a student from a local high school who visited her son's Xanga site and left a comment. Plainfield administrators checked out that student's Xanga site and found that the student threatened his school with a bomb threat.
"They brought that up and (my son) didn't know anything about that," she said. "It was all guilt by association."
While the mother is slightly slightly disingenuous -- the friends appear to have been disciplined for more than just their Xanga posts -- the school's stubborn position is nonetheless troubling. Of course, it is also unsurprising. Schools in recent years have not distinguished themselves at identifying potentially violent students. In fact, the evidence of their incompetence is legion. This incompetence in itself is a better argument against disciplining students for blog posts than is a pure free speech argument.
Although his post rightly raised concerns, the student has been punished in a way that is disproportionate to the problem. As Greg at Rhymes With Right pointed out, he was allowed to return to school after his suspension, despite facing discipline as a dangerous student. This hardly boosts confidence in the fairness of the punishment.
In my own opinion, this student's posts are protected from any more punishment than the suspension he already completed because, as he argued, he did not have or show any evidence of an intention to do any harm, because his posts came in response to a present controversy and were directly related to a specific event, because the rest of his blog shows no evidence of violent thoughts or behavior, and because the purpose of any punishment, to discipline him to avoid a bad behavior, seems to have been fulfilled. As his mother said in the Suburban Chicago News article:
"He has learned to control his speech.... It has been a learning experience for him," she said. "Everything he does in life has a cause and effect."
My position all along in this case is that while I support free speech for students, I also believe there are cases where student speech deserves some response from a school. The issue is where those cases begin, because that is where the extent of student free speech will be decided. Having a shallow or knee-jerk position on the issue will not help free speech advocates win this debate.
Put another way, we can analogize responses to this case to polls about abortion. In such polls, the majority response is usually a function of how the poll question is phrased: if the question is phrased in terms of protecting life, a majority will take the pro-life position; if it is phrased in terms of women's rights, most take the pro-choice position. Likewise, if the question of student free speech is phrased as "Do schools have the right to punish a student based on what they say in a blog?", most people will take a pure free speech position. But if we trickle out some details, about the nature of the post, about its callous reference to an infamous school massacre, and about the arson that began the chain of events leading to that post, that majority in favor of free speech will likely become a minority.
To take free speech seriously, it is essential to understand the circumstances that surround a controversy such as this. While I think the school overreacted here, and though I think the student may have a valid free speech court claim, I still think that his posts veered dangerously close to unprotected speech. I also think that most people would disagree, and would say that his posts are not protected at all. If one cares about free speech, one ought to have an argument to counter such reactions, one that accepts that the school has responsibilities to all of its students and that can explain how this student's posts deserved no more punishment than the suspension he had already received.
In addition to reporting on this case's disposition, the South Suburban News article notes that the Plainfield School District has a new policy statement on student web sites. It can be found here, and reads in full:
The school district does not monitor student Web sites or seek out online postings by its students. However, when a posting creates a disturbance to the educational environment, or threatens the safety and security of students or staff members, it is the responsibility of the school district to look into the matter.
The district respects the First Amendment rights of our students, but not all words can be categorized as protected speech. Students can be disciplined for online postings if the message creates a disruption to the school environment, or if the message threatens violence toward the school, a staff member or another student. As with any proposed disciplinary action, the school district evaluates the circumstances of each individual case before making a final determination.
That the policy states that they do not seek out postings but will respond should a post cause a disturbance supports a suggestion I made (see the comments) that this controversy began after a student complaint. This dovetails with something from the Suburban Chicago News article:
In many cases, staff finds out about an incident when a student or parent brings in a copy of something they read on the Internet that has raised a concern. The proposed policy elaborates on what is already in student handbooks regarding causing a disruption to the learning environment.
Finally we have this report of a real threat in a MySpace posting. Or at least at first it appears real, but since it took several months for it to be discovered it is questionable how dangerous this student really was:
A 14-year-old Aurora boy has been charged with a felony after he was accused of threatening the life of an Oswego school administrator on his personal MySpace account.
Aurora police charged the boy -- a student at Bednarcik Junior High in the Oswego School District -- with harassment through electronic communication. Because of his age, the name of the student has not been released.
Police spokesman Dan Ferrelli would not characterize the student's comment other than to say it "threatened an administrator's life."
The message had apparently been posted in early 2006, but it was not discovered by the school administrators until Monday. Officials for the school, in the 3000 block of Heggs Drive, did not return calls for comment.