Does your web policy cover student sites?
When a student in New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School created an unofficial school Web site with a message board where the 3,000 students could evaluate teachers anonymously, hundreds of messages were posted daily. While some claimed that individuals assigned too much homework or were overly strict, anonymity also prompted the use of expletives and libelous charges such as "skirt chaser" and "pedophile." The site was shuttered after three teachers threatened legal action.
In a similar situation, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled the Bethlehem Area School District did not violate a student's First Amendment rights when it expelled him for creating a derogatory site targeting a teacher and a school administrator. Even though the private site stated reasons why the teacher should die, and asked visitors to contribute to pay a hitman, the court found that it was a "sophomoric, crude, highly offensive, and perhaps misguided, attempt at humor or parody." Nevertheless, it also concluded the site created a disturbance that interfered with the work of the school-including physical and emotional problems suffered by the teacher-and expulsion was warranted. This pronouncement was significant since it is now common for students to create Web sites both inside and outside of school.
GROWING POPULARITY OF BLOGS Opportunities and challenges are escalating through the exploding popularity of special Web site forms called Weblogs, or "blogs." A blog is a continually updated personal diary where people write whatever ideas pop into their heads and share thoughts, opinions and views. Blogs may also include news, photos, essays, poetry and links to other sites. Blog posts are typically short, unedited "instant messages to the Web" that are arranged chronologically, and may be creative, insightful, irreverent and even offensive.
Thousands of individuals, particularly young people, now have blogs on countless topics, thanks to free online software that automates the process, such as Blogger (www.blogger.com). A variety of blog examples can be accessed through directories such as Eatonweb (portal.eatonweb.com) and Weblogs.com (www.weblogs.com).
BLOGS IN SCHOOL There are growing numbers of experiments for using blogs in teaching and learning, such as Weblogs in Education (www.schoolblogs.com). For example, all schools encourage students to express themselves through writing, and that is exactly what blogs are for. But at the same time, students need to be informed that freewheeling online critical speech may be defamatory.
Yet, if the positive potential of blogs is not understood, it is easy to throw out babies with bathwater. Administrators in a Virginia high school discovered that a student used school computers during school hours to post to his blog. Ironically, as the student later described his experience online (www.sammydman.com/archives/000805.php), he spent an emotional day in the principal's office filling out an affidavit describing his blog and providing information on blogs maintained by fellow students. While administrators must protect their districts against the inappropriate use of computer resources, they should also avoid summarily rejecting new communications forms without examining their potential.
REVIEWING POLICIES While districts' acceptable-use policies all need to address issues related to student Web sites, such as derogatory, libelous and anonymous postings, most policies don't do this because they were developed before such sites became common. As a result, schools leave themselves open to losing cases on "free speech" grounds, even when the actions of students are objectionable. It is therefore time to review policies and make sure that Internet guidelines are updated and clear, and are read by students and parents. Additional information is available online at sites such as the Responsible Netizen Institute (responsiblenetizen.org).
Odvard Egil Dyrli, email@example.com, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut