Sunday, March 25, 2007

Free speech, the school yard and cyberspace

You may have read or heard about this story, particularly if you live in the Toronto area. It generated quite a bit of water cooler debate with my work colleagues on Friday:

Are teens crossing the line with online insults?

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Kicked out of school over online insults against a vice-principal, Brad Parsons, the face of free expression's latest fight, took his place in the sun outside his Toronto high school yesterday.

Brad, 16, was suspended from Birchmount Park Collegiate this week for starting an online chat group, on a website called Facebook, where students were invited to register their dislike of the vice-principal. Four students who actually posted the derogatory comments were also given the boot.

As I see it, there are a couple of different issues here. First of all, the free speech vs. libel issue. Without knowing exactly what was said by these students in the online forum, it is difficult to know if it crossed the legal line and constitutes libel.

But here's the bottom line question for me: if the incident did not take place on school property, or on a school-sanctioned field trip, then why is the school stepping-in here and meting out discipline? What is their authority to police what students do, no matter how distasteful, off school property on their own time? Isn't this really a matter for the parents?

Now, if school computers were used that's another matter, but there's no indication that was the case. Also, if the remarks were indeed libelous or criminal, then the school can avail itself of the legal remedies available in the justice system. But I fail to see what authority the school has here to suspend these students. If they don't wish to pursue legal remedies, punishment is up to the parents.

I'm not a parent, so perhaps I see things differently. A colleague at work is a parent and she agreed with the school's decision to suspend the students. Frankly, were I a parent I'd resent the school's intrusion. I'd feel it's my responsibility to teach my child right from wrong here, and punish if necessary.

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