A case pitting Connecticut public school administrators against a high school student’s personal blog took center stage at a Yale Law School conference on free speech over the weekend.
The case, Doninger v. Niehoff, ruled on contentious issues forming the heart of debate at the conference, “The Future of Internet Speech: What Are We Teaching the Facebook Generation?” hosted by the Yale Law School’s Law and Media Program. Approximately forty students, professors and journalists gathered for the two-day conference, which was precipitated by a series of recent court decisions , including Doninger v. Niehoff, that conference attendees said have restricted the ability of young people to write and speak freely in and out of school or on the Internet.
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In Doninger v. Niehoff, courts upheld a school district’s decision to kick student Avery Doninger out of student government after Doninger called school officials “douchebags” in a personal blog.
“I feel as if I am standing on the edge of an abyss that is the grave of the First Amendment Rights of students,” Doninger’s attorney Jon Schoenhorn said.
Courts have said public schools have the authority to restrict student speech if it interferes with the school’s educational mission: In Doninger v. Niehoff, a Connecticut federal court sided with school officials, arguing that student Doninger’s vulgar language hindered the school administrators’ ability to create a safe and civil school environment.
But Stephen Nevas, executive director of the Law and Media Program, said public school administrations are likely to infringe on students’ First Amendment rights by using legislative and judicial decisions as the foundation for their student Internet communications policies.
Conference participants agreed that the Internet creates a generational gap between students and adults. Mel Riddile, associate director for high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, noted publicity surrounding court cases casts student Internet usage in a bad light. Riddile said parents and educators follow news reports of “cyberbullying” and privacy violations, eventually coming to view the Internet as “electronic reefer madness,” a term that drew laughs from the audience.
Participants generally agreed that some Internet regulation is necessary.
“If there were no guidelines, YouTube would be all sex,” Victoria Grand, YouTube’s head of policy, said. “There would be no content about beluga whales, how to tie your shoe, or the Gaza conflict.”
Participants said students often lack specific knowledge of the types of behavior that classify as harassment, defamation, or violations of personal privacy and intellectual property rights – leading to irresponsible speech and action.
Conference breakout groups drafted advice for schools on Saturday, calling on teachers, administrators and parents to teach students the responsibilities that come with First Amendment Rights on the Internet.