Student’s profane tweet stirs free-speech debate

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Superintendent Dennis Stockdale said the school computer network has a federally required filter that flags certain prohibited content, whether it’s foul language or a pornographic website, anytime a student or teacher posts or accesses it.

Students must sign a “Respectable Use Policy” in which they agree not to visit websites or forward communications that are “inappropriate,” but the document doesn’t specifically mention language and says nothing about students’ own posts.

Stockdale was uncertain whether a school computer might download Internet content that had been posted from a personal device earlier when a student logged onto their Twitter or Facebook account at school.

“Whether it’s already on there or not … if they bring it up on their school computer then, then it’s a school issue,” Stockdale said.

Legal experts say schools aren’t getting much help from the courts. Lower court rulings have varied widely, and the Supreme Court has declined three times this term to review similar student off-campus speech.

“School officials don’t really know what legal standard applies,” said Emma Llanso, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit public interest group in Washington.

With little help from the courts, school officials and state lawmakers across the U.S. are groping for any kind of guidance on the issue.

New Jersey legislators last year passed a law aimed at curbing cyberbullying that also compels administrators to track students’ online behavior away from school.

“I think it’s such a reach that it’s absurd,” said Charles Maranzano, superintendent of the Hopatcong, N.J., school district. “I think it’s completely illegal that we’re being asked to investigate into the private lives of people outside the schools.”

Indiana lawmakers this year considered a bill that would have increased school officials’ authority over off-campus behavior. Supporters said it was motivated by concerns over bullying, but critics contended it was a response to a federal court ruling last August that found a northern Indiana school district violated the First Amendment rights of two teenage girls by punishing them for posting sexually suggestive photos on MySpace during their summer vacation.

The bill bogged down over First Amendment concerns and was referred to a study committee.

“As we got deeper and deeper into the subject, we found it becoming very complex … particularly concerning technology,” said the bill’s author, Republican Rep. Eric Koch of Bedford.

The committee’s work will be too late to help Carroll, who will wrap up his year in an alternative school.

He will be allowed to graduate with his class but will miss his prom, a punishment Hudson said seems excessive.

“If they expelled every student that cursed, they won’t have graduation,” he said.

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