At Bedford (New Hampshire) High School, several students were not pleased with Superintendent Chip McGee’s announcement via his Twitter feed that classes would resume the day following the school’s cancellation for snow. They responded with tweets of their own, some that were not especially pleasant. McGee, as one would expect a mature adult to be, especially one overseeing the education of children, was philosophical. saying, “Kids said some very funny, clever things. And some kids stood up and said, ‘Hey, watch your manners.’ That was great. And some kids — a few — said some really inappropriate things.”
Yes, kids will be kids. McGee then suspended those latter students for up to four days.
“It’s been a really good exercise in issues of students’ right to speech, on the one hand, and students’ and teachers’ rights to an educational environment that’s conducive to learning,” McGee explained to the Constitutionally ignorant. “Kids have the right to say whatever they want about me [and] The First Amendment right means you can say what you want, (but) it doesn’t mean that you are free of repercussion. It can’t disrupt what we’re doing in school … If something disrupts school, and it (occurs) outside school, we not only can take action, we have to.”
McGee hopes that the punished students will learn from this incident about “the line” of decent and appropriate commentary. “You only learn that by checking where it is, and having something happen when you cross it,” he said.
Good ol’, wise ol’ Chip McGee. He has no idea what the hell he’s talking about.
The students are absolutely guaranteed of speech without “repercussion,” if the speech is off school grounds and the repercussion is from a school official who takes offense. The school has no authority to punish students for what they post on Twitter, from their homes, none at all, unless it relates directly to action at school itself, such as organizing a school disruption. A student opinion of the superintendent or his decisions? That’s 100% protected speech. I can find that right to free speech Chip mentions right there in the Constitution, but search as I might, I can’t locate in the Bill of Rights the provision describing the “students’ and teachers’ rights to an educational environment that’s conducive to learning” that extends to what a student says and writes outside of school. Where is that “right,” Chip?
Chip speaks in the measured tones of a caring educator, but he acts like a petty tyrant who is eager to abuse his position and power to punish anyone who dares to displease him in what they say or think.
No merely insulting or uncivil tweet is going to disrupt school, and if that’s Chip’s claim, he has a rather tough burden of proof to demonstrate it. Nor does a public school—that’s the state, you know— have the right to effectively censor speech by punishing content. If the speech isn’t libelous or a credible threat, Chip McGee’s reasonable remedy consists of asking to speak with the Tweeter and express his hurt and disappointment, or perhaps consulting with the student’s parents, who do have a right to limit online speech when their children are the speakers. As an educator, he might explain to the student that insulting authority figures who you must relate to by flaming them on mass social media is neither wise, civil, nor a good habit. He might even suggest that an apology is in order. He may not, however, abuse his power and position to constrain the free speech of those students and others by inflicting punishment. Chip McGee, who has the young minds of children within his power to lead or mislead, needs to learn this basic civics lesson, as do other tin god educators, and I’m sure there are many, who similarly itch to punish students for exercising their speech rights in the privacy of their homes.
Thus this somewhat atypical Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz question to ponders:
Should we declare a “Let’s Tweet Insults About Chip McGee Day”?
I admit to being torn. I detest twitter mobs that hound individuals for simple mistakes or politically incorrect jokes. They engage in a form of harassment and cyber-bullying, and the punishment is almost always wildly out of proportion to the alleged misconduct. I also, as some will remember, vigorously opposed “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” But the primary reasons for that position was that 1) the mass rendering of cartoons of the Prophet gratuitously upset Muslims who did not engage in the anti-free speech threats that spawned the stunt, 2) it was vindictive and 3) it accomplished nothing. Setting a day in which everyone with a Twitter account shoots a 140 character insult regarding the Bedford Superintendent of schools is arguably very different. McGee is wrong in punishing the students for expressing their views, whether the tweets trouble him or not, and he needs to be taught that his is not only offensive conduct to both citizens and the Bill of Rights, it also is based on specious reasoning and won’t work.
Indeed, the effect of hundreds, thousands of tweets (Dare we say–millions? After all, it takes some skill to draw Muhammad, but anyone can compose a 140 character insult) condemning Chip would still do imperceptible damage to Bedford High’s “educational environment that’s conducive to learning,” and might even improve it by prompting more accurate instruction regarding the Founding documents while limiting student fear of abuse by a petty Superintendent whose feelings are overly delicate and who is prone to use his position to censor kids.
Another reason to flood McGee with the tweets he deserves is that this scourge of schools punishing students for off-campus speech using social media has to stop.
Last year a student was suspended for writing on Facebook that he bought a gun to shoot a dinosaur, for example, but there are too many of these cases for me to track now. I’ve been complaining about them since 2011, here, here, here, here, and here, and those are just a few examples. Finally the ACLU got off its duff and fought one of them and won last year, after the Minnewaska School District suspended a young woman for a Facebook post, written and published outside of school, in her home,expressing hatred for a school hall monitor whom she accused of being “mean.” “A lot of schools, like the folks at Minnewaska, think that just because it’s easier to know what kids are saying off campus through social media somehow means the rules have changed, and you can punish them for what they say off campus,” Minnesota ACLU attorney Wallace Hilke said. “They punished her for doing exactly what kids have done for 100 years — complaining to her friends about teachers and administrators. She wasn’t spreading lies or inciting them to engage in bad behavior, she was just expressing her personal feelings.”
I guess educator Chip doesn’t keep up with First Amendment news, and he’s not the only one. A high school in Illinois rounded up students and falsely claimed that they had to reveal their Facebook passwords, based on a recent Illinois law that itself has First Amendment issues.
So yes, on balance I think it’s time that censorious, power abusing school administrators were put in their place. I think that Chip, who loftily misrepresents and diminishes his students’ rights (and ours) with both his actions and his ignorant pronouncements is an excellent abuser to target. It’s not unfair, and it’s not excessive to do this—these are just words, after all—and Chip doesn’t have to read them. In fact, he’s deleted his Twitter account, because Chip is a coward.
I’ll pick a date—let’s say March 1 —-and a hashtag: #Letstweetinsultsaboutchipmcgeeday.
It’s the right thing to do.
Chip needs some toughening up
Pointer and Graphic: Patrick at Popehat
Facts: Union Leader
Source: Huffington Post