With the backing of the ACLU, a young woman is now, a few years after the fact, going to court to sue her high school principal. The principal suspended her from school for creating a Facebook page that criticized her English teacher.
The student, Katherine Evans, is seeking to have her suspension expunged from her disciplinary record. School officials suspended her for three days, saying she had been “cyberbullying” the teacher, Sarah Phelps. Ms. Evans is also seeking a “nominal fee” for what she argues was a violation of her First Amendment rights, her lawyers said, and payment of her legal fees.
She turned to Facebook to vent her frustration. At home on her computer, Ms. Evans created a Facebook page titled “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever had” and invited past and current students of Ms. Phelps to post their own comments.
Some students wrote comments agreeing with Ms. Evans’s criticism of Ms. Phelps. Others offered support for the teacher. After a few days, Ms. Evans took down the Facebook page.
This seems a straightforward thing, to me. Students have caricatured, mocked, and criticized their teachers probably since the day teachers came to exist. Of course, when I was in school, we were limited to drawing the caricatures in our notebooks, writing taunting comments surreptitiously on the blackboards, and passing insults and name-calling by word of mouth. We didn’t have the Internet.
Now, there are web sites where one can “rate” teachers. Kids can savage their teachers on blogs, on Twitter, on social networking sites, openly or semi-anonymously. That Ms Evans chose to do it openly, and, in fact, in a way that allowed expressions of support as well as criticism, strikes me as a demonstration of more of a sense of fairness than one might generally expect. That there were no threats involved says to me that this was handled in a reasonable way by the students.
And in an unreasonable way by the school administration. This is exactly the sort of free exchange that should accepted... even encouraged, and used as a “teaching moment”. The educators involved should have shown that they were not afraid of free speech used responsibly, and that open criticism does not undermine their authority.
Instead, they damaged their authority and credibility themselves by overreacting. I hope Ms Evans wins her suit, so that the educators can be the ones who learn from the experience.