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Can I get in trouble for posting something mean about one of my teachers online?

Question | Social Media
A student at my school posted a mean comment about a math teacher on Facebook, saying “Ms. Smith is a f***ing bitch and is really a sh*tty teacher.” During school, ten other students “liked” the comment. The principal heard about the post and threatened to suspend the student who posted it and give anyone who “liked” it a detention. Can the school punish a student for venting on social media?

Students have protectable free speech rights (even though they’re a little more limited than the full rights that adults have). Even though a student's free speech rights are limited, a principal can’t punish a student just because he/she thinks the what the student is saying is in bad taste.

The most highly protected speech is political speech – speech that criticizes the government. Since public schools are paid for by public money, anyone who works for the school (including a teacher) is a government employee. So, if a student criticizes a teacher, they are actually criticizing the government, which is protected political speech.

For your question:

The post about your teacher is likely political speech. If you attend a public school, your teachers are employed by the government and your criticism of your teacher's ability (or inability) to teach students is political speech.

Check your school's policy on social media. When did you make the post? Was it during school? Did the other students "like" the post during school hours? Even if this is protected political speech, if the school has a policy that students can’t post on social media during school hours, then all of the students are probably in trouble. But if the post and the "likes" were posted off school grounds and not during school hours, the students are probably protected by the First Amendment.

Modern Languages at Finger Lakes Community College - Costa Rica 2013

The types of online speech schools can and cannot censor is a big issue, and court battles about it have popped up across the country. Courts have said that schools can’t punish student speech posted on social media that is:

  1. Political speech
  2. Vulgar or lewd (profanity, sexually explicit, etc.)
  3. Hyperbole (outrageous, not-to-be-believed comments)

But, a school can punish a student for speech that:

  1. Disrupts the school's learning environment (even if it is vulgar or political)
  2. Threatens violence against a named person
  3. Is bullying and/or harassing
  4. Violates a school policy (Check if you school allows posting on social media during school!)

Disruption doesn’t have to be a huge commotion—it could be anything from slowing down traffic in the hallway, or interrupting the teacher during class, to starting a loud argument at lunchtime. Principals have a lot of say in what counts as ‘disruption.’ If the post was accessed or created at the school, a court is more likely to find disruption. But if the disruption is bad enough, a school may still be able to punish the speech even if it was entirely off-campus!

Have questions about free speech rights?

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