Does a New York school district have the right to regulate student behavior occurring outside of the school premises? What about student posts on Facebook? These are the questions people are asking in Rome. Rome, New York, that is. As the use of social media explodes, the administrative actions taken by school districts regulating such behavior are still governed by the seminal 1969 Supreme Court holding. In other words, even though the vehicles for communication may change, the rules governing the regulation of speech have not.
On June 15, 2012 Rome Free Academy suspended 14 high school students who contributed to a Facebook page promoting a food fight scheduled to occur in the Rome Free Academy cafeteria on June 18, 2012. The students were suspended for two days. The administration was tipped off about the Facebook page and the planned food fight by concerned students. After consulting with district attorneys, the administration investigated the Facebook page, interviewed the students implicated, suspended the organizers of the food fight, and notified the suspended students’ parents. The food fight planned for June 18, 2012 did not happen thanks to the administration’s intervention.
Although some of the suspended students have expressed frustration at the district’s taking disciplinary action against them for communications they authored on Facebook using their own home computers (some students have even theorized that the district’s actions violated their free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution), as of the date of this posting, none of the suspended students have filed any lawsuits against the district. In light of the governing law, the students would face an uphill battle if they were to challenge their suspensions in court on First Amendment grounds.
In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States constitution does not prohibit schools from regulating student conduct or student speech, whether occurring in school or out, that is reasonably likely to materially disrupt classwork or cause substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others at the school. In Doninger v. Niehoff, 527 F.3d 41 (2d Cir. 2008), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit applied the rule established in Tinker to uphold a school’s taking disciplinary action against a student for comments disparaging and encouraging harassment of school officials which she published on her blog from her home computer. New York state law is equally as accommodating of vigilant school officials. New York State Education Law §§ 3214(3)(a), and (3)(b)(1) permit districts to suspend students for up to five days for engaging in conduct that endangers the safety, morals, health, or welfare of others.
Rome Free Academy may not have much trouble claiming that it had reason to believe that the conduct of the 14 students it suspended threatened to substantially and materially disrupt the learning process and to endanger the safety, morals, health, or welfare of others. Just last school year, two major food fights happened during separate lunch periods on the last day of classes at Rome Free Academy. Those food fights resulted in several student and staffer injuries, about 35 suspensions, and three student arrests for disorderly conduct.
Rome Free Academy is a public high school and part of the Rome City School District. It has approximately 1,500 students in grades 9 through 12.
So, as the adage goes: When in Rome do as the Romans do. Here, like the Rome CSD, school districts may continue to regulate off duty student behavior when it threatens to disrupt the school environment, be it on Facebook or in some other forum.
For more information, see: http://romesentinel.com/news?newsid=20120609-142103