Not sure if the story has made the national news yet, but it is the buzz of talk radio in Atlanta these days. Two middle school students in Gwinnett County, Georgia, got suspended this week for running a racist website. The website was not school sponsored, was produced from a computer based in one of the student’s homes, was done outside school hours, but the school officials felt that it’s content was sufficient grounds for suspension.
For the moment, let’s ignore the red button issue – the racist content. Suppose the students had written something which was critical of school officials, which had religious content, which was anti-American, which was pro-Arab, which advocated condom use, you name it, the issue would be pretty much the same. And in fact, nation-wide, pretty much every one of these examples can be attached to a real case where a student faced punished from his or her school because of something they did in cyberspace. The Student Press Law Center publishes a useful online guide, summarizing such cases and the legal debates surrounding them.
The core issue here is whether school grounds extend further into cyberspace than they do into physical space since web-based content can be brought into the classroom at the click of a mouse. You couldn’t come into my home and suspend me for something I read or wrote. So, why should you be able to do so if I write it on my computer? If we go down that path, what kinds of free expression rights, if any, will be left to American teens?