Tech-savvy teenagers are increasingly paying a heavy price – including criminal arrest – for parodying their teachers on the Internet.
Tired of fat jokes and false accusations of teacher-lounge partying or worse, teachers and principals are fighting back against digital ridicule and slander by their students – often with civil lawsuits and long-term suspensions or permanent expulsions.
A National School Boards Association (NSBA) study says that as many as one-third of American teens regularly post inappropriate language or manipulated images on the Web. Most online pranks deride other students. But a NSBA November 2006 survey reported 26 percent of teachers and principals being targeted.
"Kids have been pulling pranks on teachers and principals since there have been schools in the US, but now there's an edge to it – the tone and tenor of some of these attacks cross the line," says Nora Carr, a spokeswoman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina.
In the growing backlash against these cybergoofs, however, real-world norms of propriety are being pitted against the uncertain jurisdictions of the Digital Age. A new test may be emerging on how far online lampooning can go, say First Amendment experts – and to what extent schools can control off-campus pranks.
Cracking down on online bullying
Currently, 45 states have so-called cyberstalking laws and 11 prohibit cyberbullying. Until now, the concern has largely been for students, 80 percent of whom reported Internet bullying in 2006, according to NBTA.
After the suicide of a Missouri girl who was bullied online by an adult, even small towns have begun to crack down. Dardenne Prairie, Mo., where the girl lived, raised the penalty for cyberharassment to a misdemeanor – the highest municipal charge allowed by state law.
"[W]e're starting to look at [bullying] from a whole other angle," says Bob Menichino, a Dardennes Prairie alderman in a phone interview. "People can't just say, 'Sorry, it was a joke,' anymore."
But teachers can be particularly vulnerable to online attacks, too, because they are in positions of authority. Legally, they are not usually considered public persons, however, and are thus not fair game under US libel laws, says Regina Bartholomew, the general counsel for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
Still, in many cases, "the damage is already done by the time the teacher hears about it," says Eddie Davis, president of the North Carolina teachers' association.
In the so-called "Teacher Sux" case in Pennsylvania, for example, a high school student put up a website about a teacher with threats and comments such as "she shows off her fat ... legs."
The lawsuit against the student said that after viewing the web page, the teacher felt unable "to go out of the house and mingle with crowds."
Few cities have gone as far as Charlotte, N.C., in cracking down on online attacks against teachers. Last August, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hired cyber-crimes expert Det. Kenny Lynch to deal with the growing number of complaints.
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.
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."