By TIM ROWLAND
January 22, 2012
Our freedoms tolerate little wiggle room. We are not to tamper with speech, religion, guns, assembly and, apparently, the freedom to show one’s ugly side in a good strong light.
As a journalist, I have been taught to go to the wall in the name of free speech. But as a person, I’ve concluded that on occasion, common sense will make an idiot out of anyone who declares rigid adherence to some high-minded principle.
Philosophically, I should be disposed to side with “Miss Charm,” a Musselman (W.Va.) high school student who, in the privacy of her own home in 2005, exercised her free speech rights by creating a website that suggested a fellow student was infected with a venereal disease.
The school system found the site and, as a result, the young lady was suspended for five days for being a bully, was dismissed from the cheerleading squad and forfeited her right to crown the incoming Musselman High School Queen of Charm.
Miss Charm’s folks took the matter to court, without success, and this week the U.S. Supreme Court refused to interfere with a lower-court ruling upholding Berkeley County Schools’ right to effectively punish speech.
But is accusing a classmate of having herpes speech? Does our freedom of speech protect the author of a site where kids can pile on and post photos of the victim with red dots drawn on her face?
Here’s how this plays out 20 years ago: One girl starts taunting another in the parking lot at the mall for having cooties and other girls join in and the victim runs away in tears. The event is the subject of some next-day gossip and then largely forgotten. It’s doubtful the school board even hears about the situation, much less suspends anyone.
Today, the matter makes it to the Supreme Court. This is what the Internet has done for us.
It is awkward to say that the school board has the right to effectively reach into the private home of a student and punish an act of assault with a deadly keyboard.
It is also awkward to suggest that we do not have the right to speak our minds, even when they sink to the unattractive swamp of adolescent cruelty. And in the final analysis, Musselman’s Queen of Charm didn’t say anything a whole lot worse than you hear coming from the mouths of U.S. presidential candidates.
But the Internet adds several dimensions that did not exist when most of us were kids. In those dim, dark days, we could call someone a nasty name and our words would vanish on the breeze. Today, we type more than we talk, and our words have staying power. Someone searching a victim’s name well into the future could conceivably stumble across an ugly MySpace page.
The Internet also has shrunken the buffer between our institutions and our homes. Ask any number of unfortunates who have failed to get a job — or lost a job — because of an indiscreet entry on Facebook.
In the electronic age, you post at your own risk. This is a good lesson for kids to learn early in life: If you don’t want The Man (in this case the school board) snooping into your business and coming down on you for your own personal thoughts, then it’s best to keep your own personal thoughts to yourself.
As high school students, teachers would routinely remind us that kids checked their civil rights at the schoolhouse door. America was a democracy; schools were a dictatorship. And with the Internet, the line between home computer and schoolhouse door is shrinking fast. It won’t be that long before the home computer IS the schoolhouse. So as far as the school is concerned, your online behavior is your schoolhouse behavior. Is that fair? No. But parents better tell their progeny to get used to it.
And finally, it might not be the school system’s job to police the Internet, but it most certainly is the school system’s job to protect its students. And we cannot, and should not, expect a school to sit quietly by while one of its students is being blown up online.
This is the point of the column where I might be expected to wrap up with a few words about the value of civility toward our fellow man no matter what your age, and how it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.
But these are school children, so I know what I’m up against. Therefore, my final message would be this: Kids, if you’re going to be a jerk, at least be smart about it.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is email@example.com.
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