Recent Problems With Facebook Highlight Misunderstandings of the Web

Educators are grappling with how to deal with some of the problems that arise when students and teachers use online social networks such as FaceBook. No one is going to get it perfect to start with. So, while we are shaking these tools out and trying to learn what is good and what is wrong, we should appeal for cool heads and open minds, not suspensions and lawsuits.

Sadly, cooler heads are not prevailing on either side. The New York Times profiled a case today of a high school student that was suspended for posting a rant on FaceBook against a teacher.

The problem really stems from the fact that this student encouraged other people to “express your feelings of hatred” in that post.  Luckily, some people did post comments that pointed out this student’s immaturity in the situation.  Others unwisely followed suit and posted hate messages.

Just so we are clear here… generally, in most civilized countries, it is not legal to encourage hate in any form.

The student is now suing the school to get the suspension off of her record so that it won’t hinder her later in life.  Maybe the punishment was too harsh, but on the other side – don’t post something if you aren’t willing to take the heat for it.  The posting and punishment are not that surprising to be honest – although, I wouldn’t have put it on her permanent record if it was her first offense.  To me, the really jaw-dropping part of this story are the responses from the lawyers and other people involved.

The lawyer representing the student compared this case to one in 1969 involving student protests against Vietnam.  Really?  Encouraging hatred is comparable to protesting Vietnam?  Those are not even close – there is a huge difference between wearing a sign of protest against the government (which is not likely to face direct retaliation as a result of said protest) and encouraging others to post messages that could be seen as threatening (especially when the teacher in question could face retaliation of some kind as a result of the posting).  To compare those two issues is shameful if you ask me.

Even more shocking are the comments from Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.  I’m no fan of the ACLU half of the time myself.  But I’m not even sure how supporters of the ACLU can agree with this statement:

“Since when did criticism of a teacher morph into assault?” Mr. Simon said. “If Katie Evans said what she said over burgers with her friends at the mall, there is no question it would be protected by free speech.”

What? Posting a comment on FaceBook is comparable to a discussion over burgers?  For one, once the conversation is over, it’s history.  People can’t come back later and read the comments hovering over the table the next day.  They can’t encourage others to add comments a week later.  And only the people that are the friends hanging out will hear the comments – not the extended community of FaceBook “friends” (which generally includes people that aren’t close friends).

By the way, Mr. Simon – this is not just a case of criticism.  It is a case of encouraging others to join in the hate.  Usually, the ACLU is against these kind of things… or so I thought.  My main problem with the ACLU stems from their inconsistent stance on some issues, especially where religion is involved.  But that is another issue.

People, especially in education, just don’t seem to understand that the Internet is not the same as having a conversation with friends.  It is a printed medium, one that has to follow the same rules that a news paper or book would.  You have to be careful what you print in any medium, no matter how temporary you think it is.

And for crying out loud – getting in trouble over something that you write or post is not an infringement of free speech.  It is a part of life.  Any blogger can tell you that :)  People need to understand that free speech has always had limits, and need to quit taking the cheap road by pulling out the First Amendment every time something like this happens.

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