A Roman Catholic high school has ordered its students to remove personal blogs from the Internet in the name of protecting them from cyberpredators.
Students at Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta appear to be heeding a directive from the principal, the Rev. Kieran McHugh, to remove personal postings about the school or themselves from Web sites like myspace.com or xanga.com, even if they were posted from the students' home computers.
Officials with the Diocese of Paterson say the directive is a matter of safety, not censorship. But constitutional experts say the case raises interesting questions about the intersection of free speech and voluntary agreements with private institutions.
"There was a student who thought he was talking to another teen, and that was not the case," said Marianna Thompson, a diocesan spokeswoman. "Young teens are not capable of consenting to certain things, especially when they're being led along by adults."
She said the student's online contact did not involve sexual activity, but such a possibility led school administrators to convene an assembly for all 900 students about two weeks ago to reinforce the online rules.
Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which champions the rights of bloggers, said there have been several attempts nationwide by private institutions to restrict or censor students' Internet postings.
"But this is the first time we've heard of such an overreaction," he said. "It would be better if they taught students what they should and shouldn't do online rather than take away the primary communication tool of their generation."
Thompson said such a ban has been on the books at all four of the diocese's regional high schools for five years, but is being strictly enforced now. It does not restrict their Web surfing or writing about other topics, she said.
McHugh referred inquiries to the diocese.
Students could be suspended if they flout the rules, but no one has been disciplined in connection with them, Thompson said. A search of both sites Wednesday by The Associated Press found no postings by users who mentioned the school.
Profiles posted by other users on the site include photos and detailed personal information on topics ranging from body measurements to what kind of music they like, their relationships with family members, and their sexual history.
Frank Askin, director of Rutgers University's Constitutional Law Clinic, said the case could be an interesting free speech test if someone took it to court.
"They are a private school, and they can have whatever rules they want," he said. "But students do have rights in this matter, especially in New Jersey. Under our state's constitution, private entities that exercise some kind of dominion over people have to respect their free speech rights."
Thompson said parents of students who enroll in the schools sign contracts governing student behavior, including responsible Internet use.
"It's not a question of legality or censorship," she said. "This is an agreement between us and the parents."
That could dilute the students' free speech claims somewhat, acknowledged Ed Barocas, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
"The rights of students at private schools are far different than those of public schools because administrators at public schools are agents of government," he said. "That's not the case here."