Anti-Teacher Facebook Page Could be Protected by First Amendment

Mar 18, 2010

By Kerrie Spencer, staff technology writer – March 18, 2010

Anti-Teacher Facebook Page Challenges Freedom of SpeechThis may be a bit of a tempest in a teapot, but it does raise some interesting questions about privacy and freedom of speech in the Facebook age.

Florida student Katherine Evans had her knuckles rapped for creating a Facebook page full of – not-so-nice things – about her teacher. It caused a tremendous uproar all over the place, but when this whole thing hit Federal Court, the ruling was that she could continue her lawsuit against the principal of her former school for giving her grief.

Evans launched a lawsuit in 2008 directly aimed at her school principal, Peter Bayer. In the suit, she suggested that when he suspended her, he had infringed her First Amendment rights.

U.S. Federal Court Magistrate, Barry Garber ruled that her speech fell under the “wide umbrella of protected speech” in that is was actually an opinion of a student about a teacher that was published off campus. Keep that particular part of the last sentence in mind. The judge also went on to say that the material she wrote on her Facebook page “wasn’t threatening, vulgar, lewd or suggesting people do anything illegal or dangerous.”

Let’s take a quick look at a bit of history here. It was around the fall of 2007 when Evans created her “vent page” on Facebook. She had issues with her English teacher and decided to make a federal case out of it. (Pardon the pun.) Evans put together a page that featured a picture of the offending teacher and added the caption that she was the “worst” teacher she had ever met.
She also went one step further and invited anyone else (students) to talk about how much they hated this teacher as well by posting comments on the page. To be more precise, she posted: “To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, or simply knowing her and her insane antics, here is a place to express your feelings of hatred.”

The site did get comments, but from students who supported the teacher and thought Evans had gone too far. This didn’t go over too well with Evans, who took the page down and figured that was the end of it all. It wasn’t. Her principal got wind of the whole affair and promptly suspended her. She saw that as unfair and filed a First Amendment rights infringement lawsuit.

The crux of this tempest stirs up several things you might want to consider. The first thing is to ask what difference it made that Evan’s comments were “published off campus”? The second thing to wonder about is the crime of promoting hatred and why no one raised that issue. The third thing, and this is vital to the world of social networking, are there limits to freedom of speech on social networking sites?

Some industry gurus and legal pundits say First Amendment rights are not applicable to social networking technology. They add that the US Supreme Court hasn’t even touched this matter to define limits. And now this, a federal judge saying Evans has the right to complain about her English teacher online under the First Amendment rights.

The problem is that the law does not really know what to do with social networking and whether or not it’s OK to literally say anything a person wants online. The majority of Americans today believe freedom of speech refers more to speaking up and disagreeing about something in a mostly reasonable manner.

What lies ahead for this case remains to be seen.


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