Student social media controversies usually start with Facebook and Twitter. (Photo: Jason Howie/Flickr)

Tinker Tour exposes importance of student speech in social media

First thing you think of when you read the word, “Tinker,” GO! TinkertoysTinsmith or a traveler? I’m talking about this Tinker.

Mary Beth Tinker was a 13-year-old who wore an armband in protest of the Vietnam War, and was suspended for it. Taking her case to court in 1969, Tinker  involved herself in a movement that has since endured. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District is cited in nearly every student First Amendment case, according to Lexus-Nexus. Now, why does this matter?

Today, this case has come back as the “Tinker Tour.”

With the Student Press Law Center and funding from civil rights, journalism and education organizations, and some patriotism (please for all of us, look at this magic, and “get on the bus”), Mary Beth Tinker started the Tinker Tour across the U.S. on Constitution Day to bring to light today’s unjust prohibition of expression or unpopular views and remind students that they do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  Tinker has spoken to more than 20,000 students and teachers across the country at locations ranging from schools, colleges, and churches, to youth detention facilities, courts and national conventions this year. She wrote in the About section for the tour a note addressing how youth can make a difference with their speech (emphasized text from the source):

“The goal of the Tinker Tour is to bring real-life civics lessons to schools and communities through my story and those of other young people. I made a difference with just a simple, black armband. Can you imagine what a shy 13-year-old could do today with all of the extraordinary speech tools available? We look forward to encouraging her — and sharing real-life stories about how students are keeping the First Amendment alive today.”

This tour promotes “youth voices, free speech and a free press” in the hopes of significant change. What’s interesting about Tinker is her recognition of today’s social media influences, in which the “modern-day attempts to restrict students’ use of social media and other digital communications tools in an effort to combat cyberbullying and sexting.”

This week, Tinker hits the west coast.

The @tinkertour arrives at the Pacific Ocean!!!!

— Tinker Tour (@tinkertour) March 21, 2014

To honor that case and its current travels, let’s engage the current discussion on the difference between free speech and bullying on campus and take a look at the logic and the arguments behind some of today’s free speech cases.

Social media can affect student academic success based on restraint of speech. However, regardless of whether students should have said what they did and in what setting, their first amendment rights protect their speech. As Tinker suggests, campus free speech still trumps administrative control, despite relevance or maturity of that speech.

Is opinion becoming such an issue that adults can’t handle it from students? What do you think?

Disrespectful or inappropriate things have always had punishment, but in the school setting, are students being restricted beyond what they should? As an older sister, I was always told when I was younger that my brother was going to egg me on to get a rise out of me. It really annoyed me. But then I realized that I held the power when I allowed him to say that, get angry when I didn’t respond and look stupid in any further attempt. Recent news (read on and see some of these situations) suggests that maybe administrators are looking a little too stupid and need to be the bigger person. But, even I had to transition. Good things take time, right?

First things first: admissions. Like job applications, common sense is the trend these days. I don’t know how many times I need to be told “careful what you post; anyone can see it, and if it’s embarrassing, it’s not going to get you hired.” But a study by Kaplan University from 2012 states that 30 percent of admission officers use social media to research prospective students.

Now, free speech online can keep you from an education.

Here are some other cases in which administrators have taken themselves a little too seriously and students have gotten a little out of hand.

The newest (or oldest) craze is the confessions site. This craze has already for the most part died. However, according to this article, social media escalated the site to new platforms, namely Twitter and Facebook. While confessions anonymously are all the rage, as a completely objective third-party outsider with absolutely no personal interest in the matter (1:40), I’d say these pop up and down too quickly among college students because of the understanding that the posts, strong as they may be, get old. One confessions page went haywire, turning into cyberbullying and controversial posts at Hopkins, but I would side with Dennis O’Shea, executive director of media relations at John Hopkins University who wrote this to Inside Higher Ed:

“It’s unfortunate that from time to time, at colleges across the country, these things pop up. It’s unfortunate that a very few people are willing to hide behind the mask of anonymity to say things to which they would never attach their names and reputations.”

The idea of shutting these sites down entirely is difficult because of the nature of the web page. Sites remains unassociated with universities unless proof can be found that they were created and maintained on their grounds, can disrupt the learning environment or create a critical culture. Students have the right to these sites under the First Amendment. Management of posts generally comes after the hype has died down through student response to the appropriateness of the posts and maturity.

Social media misuse cases

Beyond site interaction among students, social media can be just as costly. Twenty students were suspended for retweeting a post about a teacher in Oregon. After the ACLU got involved, the school decided that maybe they should reevaluate their previous decision.

Originally considered cyberbullying, the tweets allegedly called the teacher a flirt. This is where Tinker’s case and school policies came into play, questioning whether this post would or would not disrupt the classroom environment and whether action can be taken by a school for what was posted off its campus. Tinker specifically takes precedent in these cases when deciding how schools can justifiably prohibit expression.

According to the case, administrators must “be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.” Dave Fidanque, ACLU Oregon’s executive director said to the SPLC student involvement in solving the problem and awareness of the power of their speech is the first step to keep behavior in check:

“We believe strongly that talking with students should always be the first thing that school officials do.” While students need to get their behavior in check as far as being overly offensive, “it’s most important that the people engaging in those expressions understand the impact of their speech.”

Some quick facts of other instances of free speech restricted or punished from Statesman Journal from last month:

  1. Roughly 60 students in California were suspended for (re)tweeting “@SDSchoolConfess.”
  2. A high school student was suspended for five days in South Carolina for favoriting a tweet on a confessions type page (basically the double whammy). As WBTW News13 reports, she just “thought they were funny.” Bummer dude.
  3. A student was suspended for months after he replied “Actually, yes” to a tweet that he had inappropriate relations with that woman, a teacher, and a joke gone too far in the Minnesota school district. According to CBS, students surprisingly got on board to defend the student who made the joke, signing petitions and tweeting “#freereid.”

One Pennsylvania student joked about a bomb. He probably learned that from Meet the Parents, but that’s not really funny. Neither was the tweet: “Plot twist: They don’t find the bomb and it goes off tomorrow.” Talk about dark humor. This joke was misplaced and insensitive to recent security concerns, but there are other precedents that state if he developed the post as satire (and the public understands it as such), than that speech is protected. Really though, he’s learned his lesson now.

Unfortunately, these sorts of shenanigans are not uncommon. Students are told again and again what they shouldn’t post, but do it anyway. Speech has consequences in some sense if it falls under bullying, safety, or libel towards/defamation of a school official, administrator, or teacher. But this categorization has been too broadly applied to issues that could otherwise be settled in one-on-one discussions between the involved parties.

A student from New Jersey was banned from prom, graduation and senior trip over her tweet, so she filed a federal lawsuit, as all 17-year-olds do. She called the principal a “colorful name” according to myfoxphilly.

Here’s a snidbit from the ever-so-provocative big kid lawsuit from Jerry Tenenbaum, a Cherry Hill attorney for the girl and her mother, said to the Courier Post:

“It’s an important social issue. We’re talking about government officials being able to impose consequences on people for the things they say… From my perspective, they’re acting as much like teenagers as she is.”

While schools nationwide waste precious time and money on lawsuits for suspending students for ridiculous speech, some teachers and administrators have tried to come at the issue of cyberbullying or appropriate social media usage from another, more effective avenue.

Effective ways to end bullying without ending social media

A “Be Nice. It’s that Simple” campaign at Centennial High School in Las Vegas started after a teacher realized that freshmen students were prime targets. Janet Roll, teacher and organizer of the campaign, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

“After surveying my students, I determined that within the first four weeks of school, 32 percent had been a victim of bullying or harassment… As a parent and an educator, that bothered me.”

This program works to do more than the “Be Kind” programs used by elementary and middle schools because of the ineffective verbiage, according to Roll. Students working on the campaign provide commercials in the morning announcements with the help from video production teacher John Roberts. They also sells t-shirts with “Be Nice. It’s that Simple” on them to students from various social groups and place posters on campus walls to remind students of its message. Apparently it works.

Because I couldn’t find any posts of their video online, but here’s a video of a similar effort happening on the campus of my high school alma mater for this academic year called “Respect for All.” The school is trying to promote cultural revolution through videos and the telling of stories on campus through their most recent campaign. But really, I wish it was this simple. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction. BE YOU.

And when all else fails, remember: students are going to write things that shouldn’t be posted online. The real question is, does the school have the authority and right to remove the student from school if the social media posting was done off campus? How far should these efforts go against the very real issue of cyberbullying and defamation?