Social media is something I did not have to worry about as a kid, but it’s a very different story today. Every silly, embarrassing or inappropriate thing that a kid posts on social media can be instantly shared with hundreds, sometimes thousands or millions, with the tap of a finger. It immediately becomes part of their permanent record that could come back to haunt them when they’re looking to get a job, get accepted into college, and it can get them into trouble at school.
The United States Supreme Court recently reviewed a case (Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.) where a high school cheerleader, upset that she did not make the varsity squad, posted vulgar criticism against the school’s cheer program on Snapchat, over the weekend, while she was not on school property. The school disciplined her for the post by suspending her from the JV cheer squad for one year. The student sued the school on the grounds that she had a First Amendment right to free expression.
The Supreme Court ruled that the student’s post was protected by the First Amendment. However, the Court was also clear that there are some instances where schools have the right to prohibit or discipline students’ social media posts – even when posted on a student’s private account and not on school time. The right is limited when the off-campus speech causes a “substantial disruption in school activities”, threatens harm to students or faculty, “breaches school security devices”, or meets a few other very limited exceptions.
The safest thing to do of course – when in doubt – is not to post it! But it’s hard to convince a trusting teen that his/her friends will not share and spread it around. The situation is further complicated when you have a student with a disability, who does not understand the ramifications and/or does not possess adequate social skills. In these situations, the student may have additional due process rights including a manifestation hearing.