Monday, March 01, 2010


Open criticism on the Internet

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.


Brent said...

As with any free speech question, is there a limit? Clearly threats of physical violence are beyond the pale (a nice phrase you might want to blog about). How about encouraging students to ask the teacher to resign? Or encouraging parents to write to the school board to having the teacher fired? Or rude analogies comparing the teacher to bad people in history?

Public schools are a funny place when it comes to free speech - at least from a precedent point of view...

Barry Leiba said...

I agree that it's a difficult question, but I'd want to err on the side of openness.

To your specific examples:

«encouraging students to ask the teacher to resign? » — I see no problem with this. The students can make up their minds about whether to participate.

«encouraging parents to write to the school board to having the teacher fired?» — Same as above, and one would think the parents would think it out even more soberly than the students might.

«rude analogies comparing the teacher to bad people in history?» — This is where it might cross into poor taste, but still remains as protected speech. As I recall, I've compared a U.S. president to a bad person in history, right in these pages.

I'll also point out that all of these can be done without the Internet, and have been done that way in the past. In my youth, we certainly did the "Mrs Fotzie is a Nazi" sort of thing. People recognize that for the hyperbole that it is.

I worry more about spreading lies as damaging rumours, in the hope of getting the teacher fired. Implying that the teacher molests children, runs a pornography ring, or the like. It doesn't even have to be lies: try just "outing" the teacher as belonging to the wrong religion.

Yes, it's murky. But when it's not done on school time or furniture, I don't see that the school should have control of it.