Monday, January 16, 2012

False and defamatory speech about a school principal on social networking sites is allowed?

Third circuit reverses lower courts and says it is allowed. An important case for SCOTUS. I would have thought it fell under libel laws, and libel is not protected speech

Can an eighth-grader lampoon her principal online as a sex pervert, with liberal use of the "F bomb" and still be protected from official blowback by the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment?

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia says she just might, depending on the conditions.

The case of the eighth-grader has drawn the attention of the National School Boards Association and other educational groups, who call on the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the dispute given its importance and "the explosion of social networking."

The Supreme Court ruled in 1969 the First Amendment doesn't prohibit schools from regulating student speech they believe would be disruptive or interfere with the rights of the school or other students. In 1986, the high court ruled schools also could regulate "vulgar and lewd" speech by students.

But those cases didn't answer the question of whether the First Amendment protects student speech, even vulgar and lewd speech, that originates off campus and targets a member of the school community; or is posted online from off campus and targets a member of the school community.

The justices were scheduled to discuss the case behind closed doors last week. They could decide to review the case, as urged by the educational organizations, or leave the the appeals court ruling in place.

The Blue Mountain School District covers several communities in eastern Pennsylvania. The eight-grader, an honor student identified only as J.S. in court documents, was still smarting over two citations for violations of the dress code at Blue Mountain Middle School in March 2007 when she and a fellow eighth-grader, K.L., created a fake profile of Principal James McGonigle on the social networking Web site MySpace.

J.S. used a photo of McGonigle copied from the school's official site on the MySpace profile, court documents said, and listed his "interests" as "being a tight ass, f---ing in my office, hitting on students and their parents." The fake profile had McGonigle saying, "I love children, sex (any kind), being a dick head and my darling wife who looks like a man (who satisfies my needs)." McGonigle's nickname on the profile was "M-Hoe." The fictional principal also said his interests included "riding the fraintrain," a reference to McGonigle's wife Debra Frain, who worked as a guidance counselor at the school.

Though the profile used his photo, McGonigle's name was never mentioned. "M-Hoe" was identified as a bisexual middle school principal in Alabama.

At first the profile could be accessed by anyone; J.S. eventually limited access to about 20 students. The school district said the profile became the topic of discussion among students and claimed it disrupted some classes.

McGonigle was made aware of the profile by another student, who brought a printout of the profile to school.

After J.S.admitted she created the hoax she was suspended for 10 days.

Terry and Steven Snyder, J.S.'s parents, sued in federal court, claiming that the First Amendment barred the school district from disciplining the eighth-grader.

A federal judge granted the school district summary judgment on all claims. A three-judge appeals court panel affirmed the judge, though on different grounds.

But the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, headquartered in Philadelphia, ruled 8-6 that the school district violated J.S.'s First Amendment free speech rights when it suspended her for creating the profile.

"Because J.S. was suspended from school for speech that indisputably caused no substantial disruption in school and that could not reasonably have led school officials to forecast substantial disruption in school," the majority said, "the school district's actions violated J.S.'s First Amendment free speech rights."

A bevy of lawyers, including two from the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at the University of Virginia's Law School, helped the district ask the Supreme Court for review. They asked that a separate but similar case from Pennsylvania's Hermitage School District be included in the high court's review.

"These cases present important and urgent First Amendment questions regarding the scope of school officials' authority over student online speech, questions that involve the rights and responsibilities of millions of students and school officials," the district's petition to the high court said. "Lower courts have given conflicting answers to these questions. The legal uncertainty is generating tremendous confusion and wasting resources in thousands of school districts across the country, where these issues arise on nearly a daily basis. At the moment, school officials are stuck between a rock and a hard place: They are responsible for protecting students and teachers from online harassment, but in doing so, they might trigger a lawsuit from a student claiming that his or her First Amendment rights have been violated."

The petition said the students in both cases "created profiles on the Internet falsely accusing their principals of, among other things, 'f---ing in [the principal's] office,' 'hitting' on students and parents and taking drugs. ... The en banc Third Circuit held that the First Amendment requires that school officials do nothing in response. This is wrong. The Constitution does not demand that school officials remain idle in the face of such vulgar and malicious attacks."

Citing 1986's Bethel vs. Fraser, the petition said "even in the age of the Internet, the Constitution does not require school officials to 'surrender control of the American public school system to public school students.'"

The friend-of-the-court brief by the National School Boards Association -- a federation of state associations of school boards representing the school board members governing approximately 15,000 local school districts serving more than 46.5 million public school students -- was even more emphatic.

The association was joined by the American Association of School Administrators, the American School Counselor Association, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the School Social Work Association of America.

"Social networking has fundamentally changed the nature of communication in our society and radically altered how students interact with their peers and the school community," the associations' brief said. "The ubiquity and power of this electronic forum make jurisprudential concepts such as 'off- and on-campus' analytically anachronistic."

The brief said the "difficulty of applying these and other principles from this [Supreme] Court's student speech precedents in this context is reflected in the confusing array of decisions issued by [the lower] courts in cases challenging school officials' regulation of student online speech."

The appeals court decisions in the Blue Mountain and Hermitage cases "have added to the confusion, especially in light of federal and state legislative and agency initiatives emphasizing school districts' responsibilities to address student bullying regardless of its place of origin."

Supreme Court guidance, the brief said, "is critical to assisting school officials in understanding how they may regulate the student expression that now pervades social networking forums without contravening the time-honored principles of the First Amendment."


British education boss calls for longer school days and shorter holidays… and says if teachers love their jobs they shouldn’t object

Teachers will find themselves ‘in the firing line’ if they fail to ensure their pupils behave and succeed, Michael Gove warned yesterday. Staff who do not see their class improve could be sacked more quickly under his plans to drive up teaching standards.

The Education Secretary upped the ante further by claiming teachers should welcome longer school days and terms.

But unions hit back after his two-pronged assault, with the NASUWT warning of an escalation in industrial action which might lead to strikes.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Gove said plans to reduce the time it takes to sack under-performing teachers would force staff to ‘focus’. When asked if a teacher whose class does not improve will be ‘in the firing line’, he replied ‘yes’. Mr Gove added: ‘It’s their responsibility to ensure that children behave and that children succeed.’

He refused to be drawn on how many teachers would be affected by the proposals, saying it would be up to heads to make decisions on where improvement was needed in their staff.

His comments came after the Daily Mail revealed his plans to allow schools in England to sack under-performing teachers in only nine weeks – about a term. Currently the process takes a year or longer. In an interview, Mr Gove said he also wanted parents to ask to go into classrooms to assess how well their children are taught.

He is axing controversial rules that restrict the amount of time heads can observe teachers in the classroom to three hours a year. The aim is to give schools more freedom to monitor staff.

Mr Gove also incensed teachers yesterday by telling ITV’s Daybreak programme: ‘We are all in favour of longer school days, and potentially shorter summer holidays.’

Asked about the potential impact on teachers, he replied: ‘If you love your job then there is, I think, absolutely nothing to complain about in making sure you have more of a chance to do it well.’

But union leaders accused him of bullying teachers. Members of the NASUWT have already voted ‘overwhelmingly’ for industrial action short of strikes on issues including changes to performance management and pay. They have been refusing to cover for absent colleagues and to supervise pupils during the lunch break.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the action could be extended if Mr Gove’s ‘relentless attacks’ continue. Heads attempting to introduce the reforms will be met with ‘significant resistance’ from teachers.

‘As far as we’re concerned any school that moved to introduce these procedures, which in our view are unnecessary, then obviously we’ve got the ability to escalate our industrial action,’ she said. ‘We wouldn’t want to move as far as strike action but if that was about protecting teachers’ jobs, that’s what we would do.’

The National Union of Teachers said it has not ‘ruled out or ruled in’ the possibility of future industrial action over the issue. General secretary Christine Blower labelled the proposals as ‘potentially a bully’s charter’.

Brian Lightman, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, had initially welcomed the proposals. But yesterday he said: ‘The language of sacking teachers is extremely unhelpful and demoralising for teachers.’ Referring to the prospect of a longer school day, he said: ‘The worst thing we can do for the quality of our education service is to worsen the existing long hours culture.’


Australia: More male teachers needed to help boys perform better, survey shows

MORE male teachers are needed in Victorian schools to help boys perform better, a new teacher survey shows.

The survey shows teachers believe little is being done to address the performance gap between girls and boys.

The Sunday Herald Sun can reveal the findings of the latest Staff in Australia Schools survey, which asked more than 15,000 teachers and principals about their working conditions.

The report found fewer than one in five primary school teachers is male, with the number of female teachers rising in the 2010 survey to 81 per cent.

But men are far more likely to rise through the ranks to become principals in high schools, holding 61 per cent of leadership positions.

The survey also showed principals want more power to sack underperforming teachers, with a majority saying they feel hamstrung.

While private school principals have revealed much higher levels of authority to review teachers' performance and recruit staff, public school principals warn they are lagging behind.

Concerns over a lack of power to hire and fire teachers was highest among principals at public high schools, where 54 per cent were unhappy with the rules.

Releasing the report today, federal Education Minister Peter Garrett said the findings underlined the Government's push to boost principals' and parents' power to run schools.


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