Risks to Schools and School Districts from Students' Online Statements

(Published in the Prism Risk Management blog, January 8, 2013. Used with permission.)

The conduct of a student off of school property and outside of school hours can still create significant disruption to the school environment. In these situations, school administrators have some authority to discipline students. Social media has given students a much larger voice, with statements that may reach hundreds or even thousands of people. Some conduct, including misleading or defamatory statements about faculty or staff, can have a significant impact on a school. School administrators need a clear understanding of the extent of their authority over student speech, which must balance students’ First Amendment rights with the need to maintain an orderly school environment.

False Statements on Facebook - The Chapel Hill, Georgia Case

An example of how student statements on social media can affect the school environment occurred at Chapel Hill Middle School in 2011. A 13 year-old student, A.S., along with 12 year-olds W.L. and T.T., posted a statement on A.S.’s Facebook account calling one of their teachers a pedophile. The principal reportedly called A.S. to her office, and made her log into her Facebook account and delete the comment. All three students were initially suspended, and one was later expelled. A.S. and the others insisted that they were mad at the teacher but meant the statement as a “joke.” The parents of the children accused the principal of violating A.S.’s privacy by forcing her to log into her Facebook account in the principal’s presence, and of violating her free speech rights by making her delete the comment.

The example of false accusations of sexual abuse against a teacher shows three types of liability that a school may face.

Civil Liability for Alleged Criminal Acts of Teachers

Leaving aside any criminal investigations a teacher may face, schools would also be subject to investigation in such a situation. False allegations make it more difficult for school officials to intervene in cases of abuse. Two lawsuits in Miami allege that a school principal knew that a teacher was abusing students, but did not intervene. The parents of an Indiana child are suing a school district over sexual abuse the child allegedly suffered at the hands of classmates. A Los Angeles jury recently awarded $23 million in damages in a sex abuse lawsuit, finding the school district thirty percent at fault.

Civil Liability for Defamation of Teachers or Staff

Faculty and staff who are the subject of a false statement made online may have a civil claim for defamation. A defamatory statement, known as slander when spoken and libel when written, must be unambiguously intended to injure a person. Statements of opinion, such as negative comments on a teacher’s professional skill, are generally not considered defamation. A teacher in Nevada lost a lawsuit in 2010, in which he alleged that a student defamed him in a critical school newspaper article. Statements that falsely accuse someone of a crime, when the person making the statement knows it to be false, has commonly been deemed unlawful defamation.

Balancing Privacy and Free Speech Rights

School policies on student conduct must carefully balance the school’s needs with students’ free speech and privacy rights. Students have a certain expectation that school officials will not come to their house and poke around their rooms, and their social media accounts are not much different. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that a Pennsylvania school district violated a student’s free speech rights by suspending her for creating a fake MySpace profile for her school principal that described him as a pedophile and sex addict. The court affirmed that the school’s policy regarding off-campus student conduct was legally sound, but held that the student’s statements caused no substantial disruption to the school.

© David C. Wells 2014