Feb. 2, 2011 at 1:03 PM ET
Students everywhere may have just gotten a pass, if a Sacramento's school decision to reverse its punishment of a student insulting a teacher on Facebook sets any kind of precedent. Thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, a student's freedom of speech still holds some power, and in this case, erased a one-day suspension.
The San Francisco Chronicle filled us in with the basics, which propelled me into reenactment mode. I can see it now: In early December, coming off what was probably a relaxing Thanksgiving holiday, Mesa Verde High School sophomore Donny Dunlap was not pleased at all when his biology teacher assigned his class more homework than usual — three times more.
The teen then did what comes naturally in our digital age: he kvetched about it on Facebook, calling the teacher "a fat ass who should stop eating fast food, and is a douche bag."
Snap. Not nice, Donny. Not nice at all. Even if we think such things about teachers — and let's face it, we've all thought things about teachers — it may not be the smartest thing to broadcast it on the world's largest social network.
Another Mesa Verde student, no doubt some kind of brown-noser or someone with an ax to grind against dear Donny, saw the status update, printed out a copy and brought it to the principal's office. (I guess that makes him a snitch, above all else.)
A vice principal called the Dunlap home and "asked Donny to take the posting down and apologize. He complied, telling the teacher he was sorry, his mother said." But it didn't end there.
Later that day, Donny received the dreaded summons to the principal's office, where he was accused of being a cyberbully and suspended for a day.
Seeing as how Donny is an honor student and football star, his family did not want that kind of disciplinary action to tarnish his record, so they called the ACLU.
"Schools have an obligation to provide a safe school environment," ACLU attorney Linda Lye told the Chronicle. But "petty comments, insults, ordinary personality conflicts ... don't rise to the level of harassment."
The ACLU had the school on two counts: first, on the disciplinary act itself, the Constitution "bars schools from disciplining students for speech, unless the speech creates a material and substantial disruption of the school environment." And two, California law protects freedom of expression, especially for students. The school was vulnerable to a lawsuit.
These factors probably figured prominently in the decision from principal Rick Messer, who wasn't around when all this went down, to take away the suspension, "as it does not meet the requirement of causing a disruption to the school environment," said school spokesman Trent Allen.
Donny seems to be getting off easy and might get some cred from his peers for posting the verbal equivalent of the finger to an authority figure and getting away with it. His mom didn't excuse his behavior — "I don't want him to talk about any kind of authority figure that way" — but she also rationalized that it didn't pose the kind of danger that is used to justify permanent disciplinary blemishes on a student's record.
What do you think rises to the level of causing a substantial disruption to the school environment?
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