CA High School Students Kill A First Amendment-Violating 'Social Media Contract'

from the more-cyberbullying-hysteria dept

The internet offers a ton of positives for schools but so many cling to the belief that it’s the enemy. If it’s not Wikipedia streamlining students’ research efforts, it’s the general unfiltered and unsupervised nature of the beast itself, one that doesn’t fit in with most administrations’ desire to control all inputs into their students’ minds.

Social media is even more problematic, what with its student-to-student interface and the ever-present possibility of bad things happening, like cyberbullying or the creation of child pornography (by consenting teens). It can even be turned into a vehicle for mockery of the school and its employees. The solution? Ultra-restrictive policies that minimize the school’s exposure in case of unpleasantness.

The Lodi School District in California recently added a new social media policy, one that wasn’t taken well by a number of Bear Creek High School students.

Last spring at the end of the 2013 school year, the Lodi school district adopted a new regulation, “Social Networking by Student-Athletes and Co-Curricular Participants,” that all students and their parents must sign as a requirement to take part in sports or clubs. Under the agreement, students agree to submit to the school’s disciplinary authority for what they say on social networking sites, even off-campus on their personal time. Among the types of speech the policy purports to ban are: (1) speech making references to violence or to alcohol or drug use, (2) speech indicating knowledge of cyberbullying, (3) speech that is “demeaning” about any person, (4) “liking” or “retweeting” a social media post that contains prohibited speech, and (5) “subtweeting,” or posting a comment on Twitter that refers to a person who is not named.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the First Amendment can see the problems inherent in this policy, especially considering it claims authority over off-campus actions. Also problematic is the fact that the policy only affects students who wish to engage in extracurricular activities. The whole “contract” (as the district refers to it) is a gray area, something made worse by it being wholly subject to the personal interpretations of administration members.

Fortunately, Bear Creek students decided to fight back.

The social media policy of the Lodi Unified School District is eliciting strong protests from students at Bear Creek High School in Stockton, some of whom voiced their concerns at the board meeting Tuesday night.

The students represent more than 300 students who signed a petition against the district-wide policy on social media for high school students participating in extracurricular activities.

Faced with this, the administration leapt to the defense of the “social media contract.”

Bear Creek Principal Bill Atterberry told KCRA 3 the policy combats cyber-bullying.

“Online bullying is a problem, and we are looking to safeguard our students, because it is rampant,” he said.

Atterberry apparently believes that if he says something, it must be true. Cyberbullying is “rampant,” or so those writing cyberbullying policies and laws claim. But actual research shows the bullying and cyberbullying have been on the decline over the past decade. The decline is even greater when compared with numbers from the early-90s.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of efforts being made to fight an exaggerated problem and the frequent end result is overwrought policies like Lodi’s.

But back to Principal Atterbury and his assertion of non-factual claims as facts.

Students have also talked to an attorney, who said the contract is illegal.

“Our attorneys looked at it and said it was fine, so the attorneys will hash it out,” Atterberry said.

Keep this statement in mind for later. And this as well.

As it stands, students are required to sign the contract in order to participate in any extra-curricular activity.

The students’ protest drew the attention of the Student Press Law Center, which fired off a six page letter detailing the problems with the Lodi District’s “social media contract,” stating that the policy “fails to withstand the most basic First Amendment scrutiny.”

Faced with this additional heat, the district has decided to drop the policy.

Amid pressure from attorneys, the Lodi Unified School District is suspending a controversial Twitter and Facebook policy.

In a statement, the superintendent writes, “We will revise the statement in order to clearly communicate the original intent, which was to describe how social networking can lead to consequences at school.’

This doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing one does with a policy that’s legally “fine.” This seems more like something one does when they’re caught trying to enforce questionable policies.

And then there’s this.

The district claims the contract was more of a guideline, and they are set to review it on Tuesday.

Really? A week ago, it was a requirement. Any student wishing to partake in extracurricular activities was made to sign the “contract” first. This claim also runs counter to another statement the district made earlier in the week.

District officials said that clubs and athletics are singled out because it’s an activity that schools can take away from a student.

Odd. That also seems more like a “requirement” to me. After all, you can’t hold anything over a student’s head if you don’t have their signed consent.

It’s good to see something positive result from pushback against policies like these. Too often, school districts feel the best way to deal with things they have little control over is to craft broad, far-reaching policies. Sure, these districts may be operating with “good intentions,” but these policies are often cures that do more damage than the disease. Erring on the side of caution is still an error, no matter how pure the intentions behind it.


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Comments on “CA High School Students Kill A First Amendment-Violating 'Social Media Contract'”

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40 Comments
Angel (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Sadly this is nothing new. People who always claim to be doing something “for the children” almost always seem to have ulterior motives.

People are strange when it comes to children & their rights. Like when it comes to charging children as adults. Everyone wants to tell these children they have no rights other than what their parents/guardians give them because they are children, and there is no recourse otherwise. Until they do something wrong, then all the sudden it’s “Well they were old enough to know better”. The whole method of dealing with children thus far really is very backwards and in most cases instead of bettering the child/children’s situations it only serves to make things worse.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think the object lesson went well. They got informed, started a petition, presented their side and learned first hand that those in power are stupid and unreasonable.
It is only when you can find an ally that you can make the stupid back down.

As some of them are approaching the age of 18 and will soon be voters, they should remember how wonderfully they were treated by this board, and vote them all the hell out requiring the new membership to clean house of the stupid.

sorrykb says:

This is actually encouraging

Yes, the school district tried to put forward this policy (which is bad), but the students fought back, recruited legal help, and won. So, I’ll put this in the “good news” column (and we could use some good news).

Here’s a quote from one of the KRCA stories linked above, from student Jacob Williams:

I will not give up my rights for any reason. I may be a minor, but I will not waive rights as an American citizen.

Anonymous Coward says:

Oh, and can someone fire the lawyer who OK’d this policy? I can understand a school board being ignorant. They’re really just ordinary people; they aren’t likely to have detailed knowledge of all the laws that apply. That’s why they hire someone whose job is to know the law, and let them know when the First Amendment says they can’t actually make whatever rules they want regarding student speech.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Voidable Contracts

Oh, and can someone fire the lawyer who OK’d
this policy? That’s why they hire someone whose
job is to know the law, and let them know when
the First Amendment says they can’t actually make
whatever rules they want regarding student speech.

The 1st Amendment doesn’t even need to be considered here. Basic contract law applies. The vast majority of the students who would have beeen required to sign this contract are minors. Minors cannot be bound by the contracts they sign; in other words, contracts with minors are voidable. So the kids could all sign this idiotic nonsense, and then when the school tried to discipline them based on the contract, just say, “Hey, I’m a minor. I hereby void that contract as if it never existed. So suck it.”

But more importantly, any 1st-year law student knows this sort of thing, so how it breezed past the shining lights in the school district’s legal departmnet is god’s own private mystery.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Voidable Contracts

But minors can still make agreements. And schools conclude agreements with students all the time, and proceed to rely upon them them. I’m sure you remember such agreements.

How does this work, if they are not contracts because the children are minors?

It isn’t really contract law, it’s a quid-pro-quo within the walls of a disciplinary hierarchy. The school can enforce it unilaterally without resort to the courts, and without it being recognized legally by the courts, simply by withholding participation in the extracurriculars in question, or other punishments.

(Barring 1st amendment issues of course.)

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Voidable Contracts

It isn’t really contract law, it’s a quid-pro-quo within the walls
of a disciplinary hierarchy. The school can enforce it unilaterally
without resort to the courts, and without it being recognized
legally by the courts, simply by withholding participation in the
extracurriculars in question, or other punishments.

If these aren’t real contracts and the school doesn’t need a contract to enforce such policies, why bother with having the students sign something called a contract at all? Just announce the new policy and enforce it on everyone. The fact that they felt they had to get the students’ signatures indicates that their legal team told them merely unilaterally implementing it as a rule was a legal non-starter. Unfortunately for them, so is turning it into a contract.

vilain (profile) says:

Glad to see school board got a 2nd opinion

I can see a helicopter parent (who’s also a lawyer) going after this with the help of that local Student Law center. And suing the principle personally for violating a student’s 1st amendment rights. Because his Johnny *has* to get into Harvard. And not being in sports or clubs would get in the way of that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Glad to see school board got a 2nd opinion

Why would it necessarily be a “helicopter parent” that is involved in their childs’ education?

Why would they need help from a “local Student Law center”?

How would suing the principle benefit the students’ future collegiate prospects?

Your whole post reeks of disdain, why is that? You think students should just submit to the school authoritarian rule because it is good practice for the “real world”?

Anonymous Coward says:

Oh the memories.

Oh man. I could tell so many stories about my local school admins going overboard on policies back when I was in grade school. I think my favorite one is the school prinicpal who tried to ban hugging for the week of Valentine’s day (and this was at a public school with hundreds of students), because it was ‘a distraction from the learning environment’. The students nearly rioted, and most of the teachers too.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Draconian measures are foisted upon students at all levels of education. Some of the more egregious transgressions even get a few seconds of media attention, UC Davis for example. The campus cop who made 122K/yr got a paid vacation as punishment and has since filed a complaint asking for worker’s compensation due to psychiatric injury.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The “state” is comprised of people, therefore your statement reduces to — People want to control people.

This is true no matter where you go, what institution(s) you have to deal with, or whatever organization is blowing smoke up your ass. Higher education is not free of this by any means, the OP simply lacks a clue.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Aren’t speech codes mostly a private school phenomenon, hence no first amendment issue, more a question of the ethics of academic communities?

And aren’t they generally less intrusive in practice than high school proposals, if only because the balance of power is not so overwhelmingly in favor of the institution, as they are dealing with older students (adults) with more independent lives?

FM Hilton (profile) says:

The reason behind the 'guidance'

I bet apples to oranges the real reason the school district did this stupid, over-the-top crap was that they were afraid that they’d get sued for “allowing” cyber-bullying and to seem to not have a policy against it, like so many other schools do.

However, their over-arching concern certainly did backfire on them spectacularly, and I’m pretty proud of those kids who did this to them.

They had it coming to them, hands down.

Anonymous Coward says:

Cyberbullying does not exist

It is, however, a convenient fiction for those who wish to trash the First Amendment, for those who wish to beat the “FORRRR THE CHILLLLLDDRENNNN” drum, for those who want to engage in political grandstanding, for those who want easy research funding, for those who want to shut up people they find annoying, for those who want to divert attention from actual problems, and for fascist school administrators to extend their power.

Shon Gale (profile) says:

If you are under 18 in this country you have absolutely no freedom and you definitely have no rights. Why do you think we all ran away from home and school during the sixties. This is lightweight compared to their rules. Dress Codes. Marching in place. In High School. Yea teach them freedom, but don’t let them practice it until you brainwash them all into believing they are free.

Anonymous Coward says:

Yet another reason...

Yet another reason to stop forcing children to attend 15,000+ hours of compulsory government indoctri…er, “schooling”.

Government “schooling” is all about instituting the myth of State authority (that individuals within the State have more rights than the polis) as well as implementing a form of emotional thinking rather than true critical thinking.

For more on this topic I highly recommend looking into the works of John Taylor Gatto. A great place to start is on YouTube with “The Ultimate History Lesson: A Weekend with John Taylor Gatto”.

Government schooling is about obedience to the State. Real education comes from learning by engaging in what an individual is passionate about.

I prefer consensual relationships and voluntary exchange.

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