High School Student Expelled For Tweeting Profanity; Principal Admits School Tracks All Tweets

from the hello-free-speech-rights dept

Tinker v. Des Moines is considered a key lawsuit in defining the free speech rights of students. While there have been a few cases that limited the ruling, it’s still seen as the key case in establishing that students have First Amendment rights and that schools can’t just arbitrarily shut them down.

I’m reminded of all this after hearing that a student, Austin Carroll at Garrett High School in Garrett, Indiana, was expelled from the school for a silly tweet that used the word “fuck” repeatedly. Supposedly he tweeted something along the lines of “Fuck is one of the fucking words you can fucking put anywhere in a fucking sentence and still fucking makes sense.” A little juvenile, but he’s in high school. He insists that he tweeted this from home, but the school insisted that it was done at school. But the details suggest the tweet came at 2:30am when he was definitely not at school.

What’s coming out, however, is that the school was apparently spying on how students use Twitter:

The principal at Garrett High School claims their system tracks all the tweets on Twitter when a student logs in, meaning even if he did tweet it from home their system could have recognized it when he logged in again at school.

I’m not entirely sure what they mean here by it “could have recognized it when he logged in again at school,” but it seems clear that the school was aggressively monitoring social networking activity, and chose to expel the kid because of his decision to express himself. It sounds like Austin isn’t fighting the expulsion, but simply found an alternative school to complete his last few months and get his diploma, but that’s pretty ridiculous. I don’t see how the school has a legitimate argument for expulsion here as it appears to violate his basic First Amendment rights. Even beyond that, though, it’s really pretty shameful what the school is teaching its students. Spying on students and punishing them for expressing themselves gives exactly the wrong kind of message to students.

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Comments on “High School Student Expelled For Tweeting Profanity; Principal Admits School Tracks All Tweets”

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TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I hate to say it but rational justification isn’t part of the control freak aspect of some school admins.

Then again, perhaps the guy that was expelled has just learned a lesson a lot of people have learned to their horror at work. Never be logged into the work/school network and be on a social networking site and using it at the same time. You’re just asking for trouble.

As far as this instance is concerned I can’t think of a rational reason to expel this kid for using profanity at all. Most of the juvenile sentence sounds cleaner that what you can often hear on the school yard or in the halls.

Almost Anonymous (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

My interpretation is that you are both correct to a point:

It sounds like he did the actual tweet itself at home, probably on his own computer. Then at a later point at school, he logged onto his twitter account at which point the school, which is obviously data-mining network traffic, discovered the profanity-laden tweet and thought this would be a great time to out themselves for snooping on all http traffic. I strongly suspect if he had been using https he would have had no problems.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I read the article see my previous comments to all the other FUCKTARDS. He wrote FUCK at home but clearly he accessed his Twitter account FROM SCHOOL which exposed his moronic comment to the school’s monitoring software. This is Darwinism in action. The kid will learn an important lesson.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I believe one needs to read the accounts from both articles referenced in this Techdirt post. Also, understand that the school officials may not comprehend how their laptops are set-up and represent any access incorrectly. A critical point is that school’s officials said that the twitter posting showed the school’s IP address. My educated guess is that the student did tweet from home using the school laptop given to him. Furthermore, the laptop is set-up to use a server at the school as a proxy. Thus, any internet access went through the school as an intermediate step. The school could be monitoring this internet activity via it’s proxy or it could log transactions on the laptop which are then reported to the school when the laptop is directly connected to the school’s network. If so, and the school did not explain to students about the proxy or that their internet activity, even at home, was being monitored, then the school is in the wrong, violated the student’s 1st amendment rights and violated his privacy.

zenvelo (profile) says:


Yes, the Supreme Court has limited school’s ability to punish free speech outside of the classroom. But most school boards, schools, and principals don’t care, and will violate the standard until directly told by a court that they are in error.

It’s called “modeling behavior”, which is why our free speech rights get trampled all the time.

More Coward Than Anonymous says:

Re: Re:

The school just follows all the tweets of any accounts that are logged into at school. So if you check your Twitter account while at school, the school keeps track of the students user name and their twitter tag. They then follow you and likely have a “naughty” filter that raises an alert. The kid was in his/her own home @2:30am doing this on a public forum. The real interesting thing would be to see post grads poking fun at their Alma mater. The school would still be following the tweets … hopefully enough of them are going to Law School 🙂

tqk says:

Re: Re:

Why is the school concerned with his Twitter activities at all? Even if he was on campus?

This is what I was wondering too. Considering the abysmal state of IT in typical school systems, they’re spending money on systems that monitor every student’s twitterings? How is that at all justified by anyone?!?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

They probably spent $20,000 on this system, and then raised taxes claiming they wouldn’t otherwise have the money to keep having extracurriculars like band. Oh, and presumably they have the prinicpal using school time to read every twitter of every student. Naturally that means they need an extra vice-principal, because how could the principal possibly do principal work AND monitor the students’ online activity?

On the other hand, this school apparently gives laptops to all its students – maybe they have so much money they don’t know what to do with it.

Also, how exactly does this “monitoring” system work? If it’s waiting for the user to log in because it uses the login session to request the information, that’s probably illegal. They may have the right to look at traffic going through their network… but they certainly do not have the right to use that information to do whatever they want. I could legally have a keylogger installed on my computer, but if someone then uses my computer to check their email, that doesn’t mean I can legally spy on their email until they change that password.

Oh, and by the way: Expelling him doesn’t stop him from tweeting profanity. They’ve just lost ALL leverage they have against him. Are they next going to expell his Twitter followers if they dare to access his messages?

Gresham says:

Re: Response to: khory on Mar 26th, 2012 @ 2:45pm

At my school, Facebook is blocked, but the administration uses twitter to send out important news and information to both teachers and students, so it isn’t blocked. With this being said, if they are going to fucking let you on to fucking twitter at fucking school, then they should fucking let you say whatever the fuck you want (had to do it. lol). Also, how could he have been at school at 2:30 am?? And with him being a senior, he’s probably 18 by now, which guarantees him all constitutional rights. I think he should not only fight the expulsion, but take it to the Supreme Court for violation of constitutional rights. Hell, I’ve had a teacher tell me to shut the fuck up. He’s still working there. This whole situation, especially the protest that was put down by police- again, violating the First Amendment- is just a bunch of fucking bullshit.

MrWilson says:

Re: Correct

He posted the comment on his twitter account from his home computer and then logged into the same twitter account at school and their monitoring system scanned the whole twitter account. So he didn’t use school equipment to make the inappropriate remarks.

I agree. I don’t think you’ve checked all the facts, like going to the linked article and either reading or watching the video of the interview…

MT says:

Re: Correct

That is irrelevant. If an employee represents his employer with an inappropriate remark, that is one thing. If the employee does it on his own personal account without connections to his job, that should not have any bearing on his employment. The student did not claim to represent the school with his remarks and therefore it should have nothing to do with his schooling. Not to mention that it’s impossible he was “using school equipment” at 2:30 AM.

Incorrect in part says:

Re: Correct

Actually, if the student was using school equipment at 2:30 in the morning, I’d think the school has more important issues at hand than monitoring a Twitter account for cussing.

That said, yes, they have access to the entire account when a student tweets…unless they’re doing it from their phone, in which case, helloooo, Big Brother.

Cabal (profile) says:

Re: Correct

Check your assumptions. The article indicated the tweet occurred at 2:30AM, outside of normal school hours. As for the “using social media at work,” it very much depends where you work and go to school. Many companies encourage thier employees to engage on social media, especially when it’s in relation to thier work.

And seriously… can’t we once and for all drop the ad homonym attacks? 😉

Anonymous Coward says:

Good thing that Fuck is a word that you never hear or see in school. Quoting Holden Caulfield:

That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re:

If you’re going to punish teenagers for saying fuck, you might as well punish them for hitting puberty. It’s just as natural to swear as a teen as it is to develop secondary sex characteristics. If you’re really strict, they just use substitute’s for swear words like frick or frak or freak.

Anonymous Coward says:

Are you kidding me they’ve became that sensitive in 15 years since I was in school.
Christ I told the super of my school district to fuck off and I had to do a Saturday in detention. “It’s not okay to talk to people like that but I was a kid”
Well that’s one messed up school for sure :/ I doubt it will stick.
The schools don’t need to be snooping around in kids twitters and facebooks that’s their parents jobs. For all the school knows the whole family could talk like a bunch of sailors.

Zane Stuart (profile) says:

Fuck in and out of school

It’s the principal and school board’s fault. The teachers should teach creative ways of writing – or tweeting. “Give me ten sentences explaining/describing an exceptional emotion or thing without using the word ‘fuck'”. I think that would be a great course. How to write clever tweets without cussing or cursing. Yeah, I know, it’s already patented…

First Amendment Rights is just one (very important) issue. Why does the school have access to what students do and say away from school? It’s the parents responsibility and the school should be doing only what they’re intended for. I understand there are rules and standards while students are at school or a school function but otherwise this school and principal stepped WAY over the boundaries. Unless I missed some new law, policing kids after school hours isn’t part of of a school’s job.

Jacob Cooper (profile) says:

First, I’m not convinced it’s spying when these are comments made in a publicly accessible forum.

Second, they may have a legitimate reason for monitoring accounts they are aware of. Their handbook prohibits posting pictures of students and faculty without obtaining permission first.

Third, their handbook doesn’t mention language regarding student conduct, other than that used in a threatening manner. I think they overstepped their authority in this case.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“First, I’m not convinced it’s spying when these are comments made in a publicly accessible forum.”

I’ll agree. But they have little reason to be watching it, either.

“Second, they may have a legitimate reason for monitoring accounts they are aware of. Their handbook prohibits posting pictures of students and faculty without obtaining permission first.”

They can’t legitimately prohibit that. Assuming it’s a public school, the students do have First Amendment rights – especially for actions done outside of school.

“Third, their handbook doesn’t mention language regarding student conduct, other than that used in a threatening manner.”

That’s about the only case where an expulsion would be warranted for out-of-school internet use. If the student posted that he was going to shoot up the school, then student safety would demand that he not be allowed IN the school. But typed profanity? Is that really such a threat to the school that the student cannot ever be allowed to attend the school again?

There’s really two issues here. One is that the school is punishing him for out of school activities, the second is that they are expelling him for mere profanity. I’m not even sure which is worse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Spying on students and punishing them for expressing themselves isn’t the wrong kind of message to be sending to the students, it’s the wrong kind of message to be sending to the school.

There is literally no telling how many schools have policies that mandate close oversight/spying on students on and off campus. This could be standard policy for many schools for all we know.

We already have students being spied on by having webcams activated in their homes when the students assumed the webcams were really turned off which I’m sure generated just hours of footage for some of the sick-fuck admins to pleasure themselves over in their free time. But also sent the message that cases like this certainly aren’t isolated.

Not that we’ll ever actually get an audit/reform of the school system, its major failings only gives more power to the educational institutions who have to pick up the pieces afterwards.

Anonymous Coward says:

The kid didn’t post it from school so the school has no right to expel him its as simple as that and even if he did post it from school the school should just block social sites on their computers. And as far as a fine goes how are you going to say a public school should be able to charge you even more money when you already pay for them.

Johnny B. says:

Garrett High Fiasco

Read this on Facebook:

Currently circulating around the Garrett-Keyser-Butler school district:

“The entire student body at Garrett High School is organizing a protest to support Austin Carroll’s constitutional right to free speech. We are planning to have ALL students in the school tweet the EXACT SAME MESSAGE at 6pm this Friday night (3/30) from their homes. Either the school will have to expel all of us, or defend why they expelled only Austin, while ignoring the “crimes” of the rest of the student body…”

Gomer (profile) says:

A little harsh, but...

As I understand it, he accessed his site with school property. While I don’t agree that the punishment matches the “crime”, I’m sure there is some stipulation that when he was assigned the laptop, it was for school use only.

How is this different from where you work? I know my company’s HR will swoop down in a heartbeat and will discipline anyone using company assets to access non-business sites. And guess what, they don’t block those sites, because they believe in accountability and responsibility.

Like I said, I think the punishment is extreme in this case, but what a great lesson to learn so young in life. When given expectations, there are consequences for your actions if you don’t abide by those expectations.

Anonymous Coward says:

hope he learned his lesson

The lesson is that anyone with power over you will exercise that power to cause you harm if you do something they don’t like. And the only defense against abuse of power by “authority” is anonymity.

“Spying on students and punishing them for expressing themselves gives exactly the wrong kind of message to students.”

Actually I think it is the exact message they want to send. “We have power, we can hurt you and use any arbitrary justification, and you can’t do anything to us.”

Rob R says:


“could have recognized it when he logged in again at school,”

I believe whoever said this doesn’t know the system all that well but well enough to know it spies on twitter accounts. It seems to me that if he logs on at school, they look at everything he tweets, when he goes home, it probably doesn’t look but maybe it does I’m not sure, but when he goes to school and logs back in, “it could have” looked at past tweets it had not looked at yet, and then taken action

Anonymous Coward says:

I remember getting busted in high school for surfing the net during a class. When I first set eyes on rating scale they use on the “referral form” for documenting the incident, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing– “Technology Misuse” (7) was rated as severe as Arson (4) and Theft (3) combined. I didn’t get expelled though, I think I got detention for all of one day.

This is probably worthy of being protested to the local school board at the minimum, and if they won’t hear you, the threat of a lawsuit might change their minds.

JT Gatto says:

End Public Education

I hope he knows what a blessing it is to get kicked out of the zombie-creating institution known as public education.

Fuck me, and especially the superintendents, who collect executive-level salaries as we suck the money out of the ignorant parents and productive people of society.

Education is self-driven and schooling is a profitable public-private partnership.

The great teachers were volunteers who took it upon themselves to deliver wisdom to the young.

The young would attend their lectures because they genuinely wanted to learn from the masters.

When the school threatens the student/parents with fines and criminal charges for not attending please know that that institution is no longer a school but a slave-master.

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