[Why is it that when I’m traveling and stuck in airports where the supposedly free WiFi doesn’t work and on airplanes that can’t keep on schedule, some post that I assumed was fairly straightforward turns into the Battle of Antietam? I apologize to the various commenter’s whose work product languished waiting for moderation—I just didn’t have the chance. This odyssey ends tonight; I apologize for slowing things down. On the other hand, it’s good to know that my presence is not required for there to be lively and interesting discussions here…thanks, everyone. Good work.]
Don Bosco Prep High School, Class of 1917-1918
That is not to say that sending gross, obscene, or abusive tweets is exemplary conduct; obviously it is not. I have concluded, however, that the proper and ethical use of social media is something that people, including minors, have to learn for themselves by trial, error, research, observing the mistakes and experiences of others, making dumb mistakes and suffering because of them. Parents and schools, as well as the popular media, have roles to play by giving advice and calling attention to cautionary tales, but heavy-handed attempts to manage social media conduct attempted by authority figures who, as a general rule, neither use nor understand what they are attempting to regulate are both irresponsible and doomed to failure. Like it or not, social media is a primary, and growing, means of communication and interaction in American society, and students are wise….that’s right, wise...to learn how to use it. I was just speaking to a room full of lawyers, and asked them how many used Twitter. The answer: none. But their clients use Twitter, and their client’s adversaries use it, and certainly their children. Their bar associations are making rules about what these lawyers and judges should and shouldn’t be able to do on social media, and most of those bar committee members don’t use Twitter either.As a result, the various jurisdictions have inconsistent rules, based on a lack of knowledge, that are already archaic.
It is fine and responsible for any adult to try to warn a young person that comments on social media need to be considered carefully, that they have a reach far beyond any intended audience and are essentially broadcasts, and that messages or photos can reach people who they hurt or upset, or cause to have a poor opinion of the sender. Ultimately, however, the pioneers in this new frontier of personal expression and mass communication are going to have to learn their own lessons, and better that they learn them now than when they are members of Congress. All punishing students for their tweets teaches them is that people with authority abuse it, and that adults just don’t understand. Because, for the most part, they don’t.
Now the analogies and comparisons:
Public schools vs. Private schools: I gather that the theory here is that if a student voluntarily attends a private school, the student has voluntarily submitted to whatever the school regards as proper discipline, whereas public schools, since they are mandatory and creatures of the government, are constrained by the Constitution. I think I may have encouraged this by a careless reference to the ACLU, which was, of course, a mistake (and I have removed it.) This is ethics, not Constitutional law, and the values are autonomy, fairness, respect, privacy and abuse of power and authority, not Freedom of Speech. I have dealt with several private schools and one Catholic school, and none of them suggested in their printed materials or regulations that they reserved the right to punish my child for what he said, wrote, or communicated during non-school hours, or when he wasn’t physically on school grounds. Neither does Don Bosco, which states as its “philosophy”:
“Don Bosco Prep educates young men so that, through a process of self discovery, each student will come to recognize and acknowledge his talents and limitations, while pursuing academic, athletic, artistic and personal excellence.
“Mindful of both our role and responsibility as a Salesian college prep school, we respect each student as a unique individual. Through active presence in his life, we promote a joyful spirit, intellectual curiosity, self-esteem and emotional maturity. We encourage the development of character and personal responsibility, love for one’s fellow human beings, a concern for the environment and an active commitment to social justice, all of which serve as the cornerstone of each student’s spiritual growth.”
I take none of that, including references to being “an active presence” in a student’s life, “promoting” emotional maturity, and “encouraging” development of character to mean “we can punish your child for absolutely anything he does or says that we disapprove of, no matter where or when it occurs.” It, the school, does all of the things relating to its philosophy in the school, based on the student’s activities and interactions in the school. Any other reading is giving a group of strangers whose biases, background and motivations I can only guess at a blank check to manipulate a child’s life, thoughts and personal activities.
When one teacher from a private school called me to tell me that she felt it was cruel of my son to exclude a classmate whom he did not like from his birthday party, I told her that it was none of her business, and filed a complaint with the school.. Private school does not mean “we can meddle in your child’s private–as opposed to school—activities.
Catholic vs. Secular: All schools should teach character; it happens that Catholic schools do it with more fervor, but that gives them neither a greater obligation nor additional authority. Schools teach good conduct and civility by insisting on appropriate conduct and deportment in school. Are people really prepared to argue that a Catholic school can justify punishing its students for not doing household chores, not washing their hands after using the bathroom in their homes, being cruel to a younger sibling or being disrespectful to a parent? Not only is personal social networking use as unrelated to the school as any of these, it is also far less significant. How much of a blank check do we want school administrators to have? The right answer to that is that they shouldn’t have a blank check at all, and being a Catholic school changes nothing.
High schools vs. Military Academies: This is just a bad analogy. The student at a military academy has no personal life, and has no privacy. The academy is in loco parentis; the student lives there; authority is total. There is an honor code and a code of conduct, and it applies to everything a student does, including communications. That’s the military. That’s not high school.
High Schools vs. College: Several commenters have referenced the incident from last March when Brigham Young University suspended a star basketball player for having pre-marital sex. Brigham Young is famous for its strict and far-reaching conduct code, which bans drinking, pre-marital sex and many other activities that are virtually courses at other schools. If a student agrees to attend B.Y.U., the student has also agreed to certain conditions unique to the university. Should a more typical college be applauded for suspending a student who has sex with his high school girl friend over Christmas break, in his parents’ home? No; this is none of a college’s business, and attempting to extend its authority beyond the campus and even over state lines in such a fashion is intolerable. If Yuri Wright and his parents signed a document promising that Yuri would never send an offensive tweet during his years at the school, I withdraw my condemnation of Don Bosco’s punishment.
High schools vs. the Workplace: It is true that if an employee engages in conduct outside of work that embarrasses or reflects badly on an employer, ot that interferes with the employee’s ability to do his or her job, the employer is behaving ethically if it chooses to terminate the employee. It is not ethical for an employer to terminate an employee for any private conduct it happens to disapprove of, however. It can’t tell me that I can’t drink or smoke or have sex with men in my own home. It better not tell me that I can’t vote for Ron Paul or root for the Red Sox, either. The Naked Teacher Principle applies, of course: if I’m a Coca-Cola VP and a Facebook picture shows me chugging Pepsi, that image could undermine my effectiveness at work, and Coke can can me; it’s ethical. If I write an ethics columns for a newspaper and I am caught in an adulterous affair with Marianne Gingrich, the newspaper is only being responsible to fire its unethical, untrustworthy ethicist. None of this applies to Yuri’s tweets. They don’t reflect on the school, or shouldn’t, because the school shouldn’t have any control over his personal communications. They don’t interfere with his studies, or make him a worse football player.
Expression vs. Conduct: Tweets aren’t conduct. Even if I accept the proposition that a school may, in extreme situations, have some legitimate role in attempting to control student conduct outside of school (and I’m not sure I do), allowing a school to punish a student for the content of his words, uttered or written away from school, is a slippery slope with no braking. If sexually and racially objectionable tweets can get a student expelled, why not tweets critical of President Obama, or cheering on Newt Gingrich? Does Don Bosco’s commitment to “social justice” mean that Yuri can’t tweet that Occupy Wall Street is a crock?