Facebook, School and the First Amendment

Debate over the right to use Facebook and its contents against an employee, student or the like has existed since the birth of internet profiles and blogging.

What we post on the internet, some argue, should not be factored in or considered when employers are hiring, nor should it be grounds for suspension or expulsion from school. Others claim that if our personality profiles and comments are in cyberspace for the entire world to see, it is completely acceptable for principals and bosses to use it against their students or employees.

Recent controversial court orders and punishments for social networking users have appeared in the news lately, one of which was from Wake County.

Melissa Hussain, an eighth-grade science teacher at West Lake Middle School, was suspended with pay Friday, Feb 12 due to inappropriate and offensive comments on her Facebook page. Hussain and other friends posted to her page remarks about students, Christianity, and “ignorant southern rednecks.”

Parents of Hussain’s students saw the teacher’s public social networking page and complained to the WLMS principal three weeks ago. Hussain has since made her profile private, for obvious reasons.

Some posts on Hussain’s Facebook include complaints about her students placing a Bible on her desk and asking about God in a discussion about evolution. Kids have also given her postcards with Jesus on them and wear shirts with pictures of Jesus.

On her Facebook Hussain wrote “I can’t believe the cruelty and ignorance of people sometimes.” Afterwards, a friend wrote back a suggestion to bring in a poster of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with a swastika scrawled across his forehead. Hussain commented on the idea, saying she would be out of a job, but she liked the idea.

Wake County does not have a specified policy on social networking. However, there is a code of ethics that applies to social networking, mentioning that their conduct must “protect both the person’s integrity and/or reputation and that of the school system.”

Investigators are currently reviewing her case, which could result in Hussain out of a job.

A similar incident occurred in Florida to Katherine Evans in 2007 at Pembroke Pines Charter High School. Evans, then a high school senior, disliked her English teacher, Sarah Phelps, and created a Facebook profile called “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever had.” She invited Phelps’ current and past students to join and comment on the page. After a few days, Evans deleted the page.

Upon discovery of the profile a few months later, former PPCHS principal, Peter Bayer, suspended Evans for three days for cyberbullying. Evans, now 19 and a sophomore at the University of Florida, is suing Bayer and wants her suspension expunged from her disciplinary record. Evans also demands a nominal fee for the violation of her First Amendment as well as coverage of lawyer fees.

A federal judge ruled that Evans may proceed with her trial come spring. Her lawyers are optimistic in the trial’s outcome.

“This is an important victory both for Ms. Evans and Internet free speech,” said Maria Kayanan, Evans’ lawyer, “because it upholds the principle that the right to freedom of speech and expression in America does not depend on the technology used to convey opinions and ideas.”

Jo Ellen Newhouse, one of Leesville’s administrators, explained that there are basically unspoken rules for teachers who use social networking sites. “Teachers are role models. They are expected to act responsibly when using Facebook,” she said. “Proper privacy measures should be taken.”

Several teachers and students across the country have had similar experiences with the battle between freedom of expression and cyberspace. The moral of these stories is that Internet users must simply be careful not to incriminate themselves and keep their profiles private and appropriate.

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