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Teachers strike back at students' online pranks

Students are increasingly facing lawsuits and expulsions for targeting their teachers online.

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In one case, a teacher reported receiving a large number of propositional phone calls and e-mails from gay men after a student posted the teacher's name and contact information on a gay website.

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Another incident involved a parent filming a teacher's backside during a class skit and then posting the clip on the Internet to the strains of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." The site was removed and no charges were filed.

Last month, Charlotte became the second North Carolina school district to criminally charge a student for creating a website that accused a teacher of criminal behavior including pedophilia. Last year, Mooresville, N.C., authorities had arrested two students for making threats and racial slurs online about a principal.

"The days of girls keeping things in a diary are over," says Detective Lynch. "Do I think these kids had any intent to cause harm to the teacher? No, I don't think so. But there's been teachers that have left the profession or lost their jobs because of lies that have been told about them."

Laws may hurt free speech rights

North Carolina's cyberstalking law makes it illegal to electronically communicate false statements about "indecent conduct or criminal conduct ... with the intent to abuse, annoy, threaten, terrify, harass or embarrass."

Critics, however, contend that words like "annoy" and "embarrass" are too broad and may infringe upon First Amendment protections of parody.

"What I'm not seeing is school officials approaching this in an adult manner," says Vic Walczak, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania. "They're approaching it in an authoritarian fashion...."

Critics also note that courts have ruled that students are culpable for off-campus expression if it disrupts the teacher's ability to teach. In a Connecticut case where a disgruntled student council member called the principal a vulgarity on her blog, the student's speech may have offended, but showed no evidence of causing disruption at school, says Nancy Willard, author of "Cyber-bullying and Cyber Threats." Still, the principal barred the student from running the next year.

Sometimes, the students are "clearly engaging in irresponsible behavior, but other times it's pretty darn clear that they have either an incompetent staff member or a staff member who has been bullying them," says Ms. Willard.

Are schools overstepping legal bounds when they punish students for online pranks? "That's a difficult question that the US Supreme Court has never directly answered," says David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C.

The distinction is likely to become more important as state legislatures try to figure out how to protect students and teachers from cruel online buffoonery, while respecting free speech. Says Lamar Bailey, a research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, "On the surface, it seems simple. But it can get a little dicey."