During my freshman year, I remember reading about online “blogs” that many people – journalists and others – were posting on. Some were political, some were personal; some were boring, and some were fascinating. When I discovered that I could sign up to have my very own, I jumped at the chance.
Over the next several years, my views, and thus the content on my blog, have changed, sometimes slightly, other times dramatically. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think my blog would get me into trouble. Our country’s high school students, however, may not be so lucky.
In Libertyville, Ill., the local school board recently voted unanimously in favor of a measure that would require students involved in extra-curricular activities to sign a contract stating that any “illegal or inappropriate behavior” posted on blogs and websites can be grounds for disciplinary action by the school.
Although administrators will not randomly look at student websites, they will look in if a “concerned” student, parent or other individual informs them of questionable material. As questionable as this policy is itself, it is not the only example of a school overstepping its bounds and punishing students for exercising their First Amendment rights off of school grounds and during their own time.
In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that public high school newspapers do not have a right to free press if the newspaper receives funding from the school it serves. With the advent of blogs, students who have become victims to censoring administrators have found blogs themselves to be a useful alternative.
After the student newspaper of Pebblebrook High School in Cobb County, Ga. was shut down due to “budget cuts” in May 2005, concerned students, alleging censorship, started their own blog in protest.
In a letter to the superintendent of the district, Joseph Redden, the staffers stated: “The paper has been well received by the students and staff, but our most recent edition was not received favorably by the Pebblebrook administration. Their negative reaction was in response to the fact that the front page article profiled two students who were facing the upcoming difficulties of being mothers and students simultaneously.”
The editorial benefit gained by student bloggers notwithstanding, the opportunity for them to criticize school officials has some high school administrators banning student blogging on school computers altogether.
But the most heinous censorship of student bloggers occurred once again in Illinois. A student, disgruntled at disciplinary policies of his high school, posted criticisms on his Xanga site: “I feel threatened by you, I can’t even have a public webpage without you bullying me and telling me what has to be removed. Where is this freedom of speech that this government is sworn to uphold? . . . None of us ever put in our Xangas that we were going to kill or bring harm to any one. We voiced our opinions. You are the real threat here. You are depriving us of our right to learn,” the student wrote on May 2.
He was suspended for 10 days, and now faces expulsion.
The lesson that these students are learning, unfortunately, should make any civics or government teacher cringe. Dissent is not to be tolerated. Conform, do as you are told and do not cause a ruckus.
The Columbine massacre was to student rights what Sept. 11 was to American civil liberties. In the name of safety and security, we are being robbed of the fundamental freedoms and conventions that democratic, liberal societies are supposed to enjoy. We shouldn’t be surprised. School administrators are simply following the examples set forth by President Bush. Ask Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame what happens when you dissent to Bush’s grand plans.
Our children are supposed to be the inheritors of democracy, not totalitarianism. What starts out as the censoring of morally explicit material on a blog by high school administrators can quickly escalate into the squashing of dissent of those same destructive policies.
To all the student bloggers out there, I say keep fighting the good fight. Now you understand what the First Amendment is all about: It is not about creating an army of robots who all agree. It is about the single voice of dissent.
Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.