Profane tweet puts student in legal no man’s land
By Kluger, Kaplan, Silverman, Katzen & Levine, P.L. April 5, 2012
Filed under Think Before You Tweet. Does being suspended from school for dropping an F-bomb on Twitter in your free time constitute a violation of your First Amendment Rights?
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By Charles Wilson Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — Austin Carroll, 17, was fighting insomnia in the middle of the night when he turned to Twitter for relief and casually dropped the F-word multiple times, apparently to demonstrate to his followers that the expletive would fit almost anywhere in a sentence.
But a few days later, the Indiana teen was expelled from high school over his foul-mouthed lapse, even though the word wasn’t directed at anyone, and he says the tweet didn’t involve his school.
Now, the senior is at the center of a debate over how closely school officials may monitor students’ online activities when they aren’t in class or even on school property, an issue that has frustrated administrators and confounded courts.
Carroll insists he made the tweet on his own time using his own computer, making it none of the school’s business. But school officials in the small city of Garrett, about
20 miles north of Fort Wayne, insist that the teen used either his school-issued computer or the school network.
School officials say they cannot discuss a student’s disciplinary record and will not say why Carroll was expelled on March 19 from Garrett High School, a 600-student school where younger students are given iPads and older ones are sent home with MacBooks.
His mother, Pam Smith, believes it was in retaliation for her son’s previous misbehavior, which included a suspension earlier in March for violating the dress code by wearing a kilt to school and a suspension last fall for using the same expletive on a school computer.
Carroll told a Fort Wayne television station that he was just trying to be funny and that he was on his personal account.
“Because it’s my own personal stuff, and it’s none of their business,” he told the station.
He posted on his Facebook page that he “shouldn’t have done it” but said the punishment was too harsh.
First Amendment and students’ rights experts agree. If Carroll was using his own computer and network to send the tweet, the school’s action was “an incredible overreach and overreaction that arguably raises not only First Amendment but Fourth Amendment issues,” said David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Since 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court has generally ruled that students have free-speech rights, and schools can prohibit their speech only if it is vulgar or disruptive to schoolwork or other people. But that power doesn’t reach far beyond school property.
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