Friday, October 29, 2010

Slanderous Use of Social Networks

              I have never been a fan of social networking sites. Maybe I am old fashion in my young days. Maybe I am too cautious and private. Whatever my reasons, that has not stopped the users of social networking sites to grow as the months go by. What are social networking sites? What purpose do they serve? What causes its seeming popularity? According to Wikipedia "social network service is an online service, platform, or site that focuses on building and reflecting of social networks or social relations among people, e.g., who share interests and/or activities. A social network service essentially consists of a representation of each user (often a profile), his/her social links, and a variety of additional services. Most social network services are web based and provide means for users to interact over the internet, such as e-mail and instant messaging. Although online community services are sometimes considered as a social network service. In a broader sense, social network service usually means an individual-centered service whereas online community services are group centered"

              Some popular social networking sites are Facebook and Myspace. I thought there were only a few social networking sites. Wow, was I wrong. Please view this link that shows a list of social networking websites. There some that have even 200, 000,000 registered users. Can you imagine that! I was marvelled by that site. Facebook has 500,000,000 registered users according to the list above as well.

              It must be noted that, many of these websites are not being used  for the use for which it was intended. Many individuals are using it to slander and for libel. Slander is said to be "words falsely spoken that damage the reputation of another." Libel on the other hand is said to be "a false and malicious publication printed for the purpose of defaming a living person." What is the difference between the two? "The difference between slander and libel is that libel is the written or otherwise published, public defamation of a person or entity such as an organization or company, while slander is the spoken false defamation of a person or entity. Slander can also include bodily gestures while libel can include published photographs."

                                            Freedom of Speech

               On the other hand, like I said last week in my blog about cyberbullying, what about the First Amendment? In particular the section of the first amendment which says that "Congress shall make no laws... prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech..." On the one hand, one is free to exercise their right to freedom of speech, but is it right to slander and libel which can ultimately lead to defamation of character. For example, according to Norman Chad in the Washington Post on July 5, 2010 he was Losing his identity on Twitter though he never had a Twitter account. Also, though he tried to have the account closed he was getting nowhere. You may read the entire article via the link above. It makes you wonder, though it is against the law, what can you actually do? This young man only wanted to get the fake account closed, yet he kept getting computer generated responses whenever he contacted Twitter.

             What about the school setting? What can principals do if the fake account set up is focused on them? According to Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District (click the link to read about the case), 1969, students who threaten or harass students from home using school equipment can face the "...possibility of school discipline under the 'substantial disruption of the educational environment'..." As a result, it has been said that "in the area of speech... the law must be clear so that people can easily discern the distinction between criminal activity and the exercise of fundamental constitutional rights."


               However, in the Layshock versus Hermitage School District Number 6-116, July 10, 2007, a federal district court had ruled that "school officials violated a high school student's freedom of speech rights when they had disciplined him for his off-campus parody MySpace proflile of the school's principal." Justin Layshock was said to have created  a profile of the principal. As result he was placed in an alternative education program.The student sued, stating that his first amendment rights had been violated. The justices had found that his first amendment rights had indeed been violated. The justices made reference to the Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District stating that they had made reference to the "relevant court precedents and analyzed student speech in accordance with the principles set forth in the Supreme Court ruling."

              The justices also made reference to Morse v. Frederick, 2007 WL1804317 (June 25, 2007) stating that in that case there was school-related speech, however, in the case of Layshock there was no school-related speech. The district court went on to state that "school officials' authority over off-campus expresssion is much more limited than expression on school grounds." The justices added on pages 23-24 of the filed court documents (filed on July 7, 2007) that, "the public school setting demands a special approach to First Amendment disputes. Most students are minors, and school adminstrators must have authority to provide and facilitate education and to maintain order. The Supreme Court 'has repeatedly emphasized the need for affirming the comprehensive authority of the States and of school officials, consistent with fundamental constitutional safeguards, to pescribe and control conducts in schools.' Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District  On the other hand, 'it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate' Id. at 506. Thus students retain the protection of the First Amendment, but the shape of these rights in the public school setting may not always mirror the contours of constitutional protections afforded in other contexts."

             What the court also found is that, in the cases of students, each case is viewed in terms of the school environment. If the fake profiles formed have caused substantial school disruption or does it have a compelling governmental interest. In the case of Layshock the court stated that there was no school disruption due to the MySpace page of the principal. The school could not prove that this profile caused any severe disruptions of school such as cancelled classes and so on.
                            School Bus Taking Students Home After Dismissal

             Is this the ruling in all cases that involve fake profiles? Definitely not! In the case of Principal McGonigle the judge upheld the ten (10) day suspension of Jill Snyder. The justices stated that the rulings of Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District did not apply here because the MySpace page was not considered to be political speech as was the case in the Tinker case. The justices applied the speech of the student to rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court for Bethel School District vFraser which had found that public schools could "prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse." The justices also made reference to Morse v. Frederick which had ruled that "school officials could sensor a student's speech, unlike the political protest by school officials in Tinker." You may read the entire findings here.

            How does a judge decide school related speech be it on or off campus? The justices that had upheld Principal McGonigle's suspension of Snyder acknowledged that "there was a blur when it came to on and off campus speech, [but] he applied a 1976 district court case that upheld school jurisdiction over off-campus student speech and cited Fenton v.Stear where the court ruled that 'when a high school student refers to a high school teacher in a public place on Sunday by a lewd and obscene name in such a loud voice that the teacher and others hear the insult, it may be deemed a matter for discipline in the discretion of school authorities'."

            One thing that seems to be the case as it relates to the rulings by the court is that the slander has to cause substantial school disruption. The school district has to ensure that they can prove this as well. To an extent it makes one wonder about the fairness of this situation. The principal or teacher would have undergone humiliation at the hands of the student. This topic will always be controversial and very much debatable. Parents seem to be more concerned with the punishment given to the student than to ensuring that the child is actually punished for the action and not do it in the future. It seems to be a cruel joke that teenagers feel that they should be able to get away with at the expense of the humiliation of another. With the cloak of the First Amendment to hide under, school administrators must be vigilant in its monitoring and response to slander on the internet due to a fake account that may be set up by a student.

           Teenagers Having a Good Time!

               At my school the policy is to ban all access to social networking websites. This can be a good and a bad thing. It is good because it is a measure deemed necessary as the school attempts to monitor the use of the internet and limit what the students can access from school. However, it can be frustrating at times for the teacher because he/she may need an instructional material for class for which he/she is denied access. The system may prompt you to log in as a school official, yet often times after you try to gain access to the blocked website as a school educator you are still denied access. Additionally, the internet is available at other locations other than school. In the case of Layshock he opened the account for his principal at his grandmother. So though the website is blocked at school, students still have access when they are away from school. On the other hand, as a school you must have a clear internet use policy that can be referred to in the case of court proceedings. You can't want to punish a student for something that there is no clear policy for.

              Also, school officials will still have their various methods of implementing school rules. Schools will always react to slander that students may direct towards school officials. Read this article on ABCNEWS about a school that had suspended a student for three days and gave detentions to all thirty-three (33) students that were fans after they had posted comments about a teacher on a facebook page. "The comments appeared on a Facebook ‘fan’ page which the district says was derogatory toward a teacher at the Roxboro Road Middle School in Liverpool, N.Y. The North Syracuse Central School District superintendent Jerome Melvin called it 'a personal and educational attack on the teacher, which was sexual in nature'.”

            There are several things that could have been focused on for this topical issue. I have focused on a few that I hope that you found enlightening. One must note that as I said before, this is a very debatable issue. One thing that is certain is that parents must let there children know that it is wrong to attempt to slander others. It goes to morals and the values that one has. I was always told when I was a child that "if you have nothing good to say then you should not say anything." Whenever I tell my students that when they are being mean to one another they give a look of shock, and state that they have never heard anything like that before. They accept what I say though. However, that makes me wonder, if I had not said that to them, would they have ever heard it. Again showing me that it goes back to upbringing. I would never think of slandering a teacher, principal or anyone for that matter as  a child. The fear of disappointing my father was enough. I realize though that my upbringing is different from my students. They have the freedom to do so much and feel so little remorse when caught.

               This is a very debatable issue that will not be solved overnight. School officials must have clear policies that they consistently enforce as they ensure that respect is paid to the First Amendment. The school lawyer must be cognizant of court case rulings that may be related to the issue that the school may face as they make an attempt to combat and deal with issues of slander and libel. Again, I hope that you found my blog informative and understand that all issues could not have been ironed out and brought to the fore at this time. Please tread carefully as we surf the internet and mold the minds of the students that are in our care. and Students Using the Computer Appropriately


  1. I thought that cyberbullying devastated me but when I looked through the cases dealing with social networking I was chilled to my bone - the lengths these students will go through to harm an educator. Tinker v Des Moines has given us a clear mandate to follow and I was very pleased to see that students and parents are realizing that not everthing is covered under the 1st Amendment; there is such a thing as slander and libel. Great post

  2. There are many things that hurt us interacting with others, but taunting and "slandering" are the worst. I appreciate your comment about the differences between "Slander and Libel". Not only do I know that in law the term malicious is intended to show how wicked a person could be. But also to point out how someone can influence others to commit suicide, physically or mentally. That's why the term "Agoraphobia", abnormal fear to be in an open or public place, was invented by Greeks thousands of years ago.
    It is way too hard to endure that. I do not really understand the brain of someone who enjoys slandering their neighbor.

  3. Great post! I found your post to be very informative, and it also provides food for thought. You made a wonderful examination from the legal perspective. I can tell you have gone through some law training!( I know you did ) I do appreciate your suggestion that clear rules or policies regarding the use of the internet must be set and enforced at school. I also agree with the idea of the share parents have to teach their young respect their peers and respect adults!

  4. Yep Ancizar the School Law class that we had in the summer was very beneficial. I am happy that you found the post informative.

  5. Indeed it is truly shocking to see how people use social networks (which were designed for a good cause)in a negative way. How can the students that we teach enjoy posting inappropriate messages about us?? What is wrong with our society??Should we just sit back and watch the world continue to abuse educators??
    Very good post!! Your post really made me asked some very serious questions.

  6. Very nice post. As you have noted, social networking is becoming part of many web sites. I looked at the list you provided and I am a member of 17 of those sites. If I was then banned from using them at your school, I would have difficulty working, as Twitter, Delicious, and LinkedIn are three I use daily, and I tend to be on Facebook daily as well. Banning web sites that have social features is not the answer, as soon ALL websites will have social features. I just ordered some books from Barnes and Noble, and there are social features on its website. So rather than banning, we need clear policies on acceptable use. My thoughts, anyway...

  7. You are right, you cannot punish students for something that is not in the policy. Therefore I beleive this should be a lesson to school districts and officials. Since this problem will continue in this internet frenzy world, we should either teach our kids how to use it appropriately or include policies to guide social network behavior in schools.

  8. I have educated my students about the proper use of the internet. I have shown my principal what I have done in terms of the educating of my students on the proper use of the internet. He has asked me to show other teachers at staff development that we have.

    We will have a tutorial on this that will be eventually transmitted to all the teachers in the county. My principal is very tech savvy, so he is all for the education and proper training in terms of the use of the internet. We have also had to train our parents because many of them really don't know.

    My principal has read the blogs that I have on cyberbullying and slanderous use of the internet. He too gets frustrated by the blocking of websites. He is pushing the proper training of the use of the internet, so the policy can be adjusted, at least in baby steps as he calls it...