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Students’ Facebook video has free-speech ramifications

by Leor Galil
Feb 04, 2010

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Morse v. Frederick Supreme Court case

Morse v. Fredrick

A recent case involving a student’s right to free speech centered around, Joseph Frederick, who held up a banner advocating drug use at a school-supervised event. Deborah Morse, the school’s principal, suspended Frederick for 10-days. On June 25, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school officials can stop students from displaying messages that promote illegal drug use on school grounds.

Saftey issues on Facebook

Facebook has its own rights and responsibilities code, which prohibits certain material from existing on the site.

“Facebook maintains a robust reporting infrastructure that leverages Facebook’s 350 million users to keep an eye out for offensive or potentially dangerous content,” Facebook spokeswoman Nicky Jackson Colaco said in an e-mail. “This reporting infrastructure includes report links on pages across the Facebook site, systems to prioritize the most serious reports, and a trained team of reviewers who respond to reports and escalate them to law enforcement as needed.”

The suspension of two Riverside-Brookfield High School students for a Facebook video has created new questions about the power of school officials to curtail student speech on the Internet.

Riverside-Brookfield administrators suspended the 16-year-old boys for 10 days Monday after a student felt threatened by a video the teens posted on Facebook.

“They [were] not making specific threats towards the school or any specific students at school,” said Riverside police Chief Tom Weitzel about the video. Weitzel said the video depicted the two suspended students showing gang signs and holding guns at a home in Maywood. The students confessed to police that one of the handguns was real.

David Bonnette, Riverside-Brookfield’s interim superintendent, said the suspended students had a history of disciplinary issues at the school. He would not elaborate.

“There were students at the school that felt threatened in a veiled sense … because it isn’t necessarily immediately discernible from the actual content of the video,” Bonnette said.

The identity of the students has not been revealed, nor has the content in question from the Facebook video.  

The incident has brought up issues of students’ First Amendment rights. Though a number of court cases have established a school’s right to prohibit certain types of speech - most recently the Morse v. Frederick case - the issue involving the two Riverside-Brookfield students raises the free speech question in the context of comments made off school premises. 

This is not the first instance of of students getting in trouble for posting public information online. Another Riverside-Brookfield student was also recently suspended for creating a Facebook group that demeaned another student. And in January, a student from Roxboro Road Middle School in North Syracuse, N.Y., created a Facebook group that libeled one of her teachers. That student was suspended and 25 others who joined the Facebook group she created received after-school detention for joining the group.

The Riverside-Brookfield code of conduct outlining students’ rights and responsibilities prohibits bullying. According to the code, students can be punished for material created online if it disrupts classes or harms others in school.

 The code language applied to the Facebook group created by the Brookfield student in the previous incident who was suspended.   It is not clear whether the Brookfield students suspended this week violated the school’s code.

“This is uncharted territory in many ways,” said Patricia Soung, a Soros justice fellow at Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center. “To overcome a person’s First Amendment right, you have to show imminent threat. There’s not enough evidence to show that the students were planning any sort of act that would endanger people.”

Riverside-Brookfield officials are still investigating the Facebook video case.