Northern Valley Beacon

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

 

Blogs raise new issues about free speech

Here is a story from the Chicago Tribune about the dimensions of free speech issues versus false and defamatory information posted on blog sites. Sleep well, my countrymen.

Blog gets school kids into trouble
By Tracy Dell'Angela
Tribune staff reporterPublished December 8, 2005, 9:12 PM CST

A Chicago teacher's photo appeared on an adult Web site, advertising his "student/teacher" fantasies.Another city teacher used her blog this fall to write about the chaos in her elementary music classes, including details about students wetting their pants, writing suicide notes, pulling out classmates' "fake hair" and passing around marijuana.

While these two cases drew the scrutiny of Chicago Public Schools, they failed for different reasons to meet the district's threshold for taking action--unlike the blogs posted by three boys at Taft High School. The students were suspended this week for posting obscene and threatening remarks about their teachers.

Chicago Public Schools leaders walk a fine line when determining which online postings are protected by free speech rights and which should be punished as a threat to students or staff.This debate is now taking place at Taft, where the principal at the Edison Park school has called a meeting next week of parents and students to discuss the "legal and moral issues involved with blogging.""These on-line postings... are accessible to the entire Internet community," Principal Arthur Tarvardian wrote in a letter sent home to parents Thursday.

"It is this very access which brings to the forefront issues of students' on-line safety and security as well as cyber-citizenship." Such decisions often weigh on the specificity of the objectionable content: Do the authors identify themselves, either with a name or photo? Is the writing a general rant or a screed directed at a particular person?Both legal precedent and district policy make it clear that both students and staff can be disciplined for off-campus actions, including any "offensive language" that affects "the safety, environment and learning" at a school, said district spokesman Mike Vaughn.

The discipline code also prohibits students and staff from using a computer to "stalk, harass or otherwise intimidate others."Vaughn said the district's legal staff determined that the Taft postings clearly met this definition."It was vulgar, threatening, disturbing and disgusting," Vaughn said of the blogs, which were posted on the site Xanga.com by two 8th graders and a 7th grader. The blogs contained sexually explicit references to teachers and one reference to slitting a teacher's throat "like a chicken."

"Oh yes, there will be blood... and no, I won't kill her... yet," wrote one student in the blog, which has since been removed.One of the named teachers discovered the material over the weekend and reported it to her principal, Vaughn said. After researching the issue, the principal called in the students, some of whom included their names in the blog, and their parents to discuss the discipline. The students were enrolled at Taft as part of an academically advanced program for bright middle-schoolers called International Baccalaureate.

Student Web postings also become an issue when online trash-talking spills over into on-campus fistfights. District legal officials have recently dealt with a handful of cases related to student-to-student postings on the Web site tagged.com, Vaughn said.Teachers face scrutiny for online material they, too, might assume is private. A teacher at a Southwest Side high school was questioned by his principal late last year after his photo was found on a Web site described as "the world's largest sex and swinger personals site."

The listing, under the name "HotFreakyCpl," gave explicit sexual preferences and fantasies, including role-playing as "student/teacher." It was this reference that prompted school officials to investigate.

However, the teacher said the material was posted without his permission by a girlfriend. He removed the posting and was not disciplined, Vaughn said.

Another Chicago teacher's blog--which she describes as "an extension of a larger piece of work, detailing, analyzing, and releasing my frustrations with the public school system of Chicago"--recently drew the ire of a parent furious about the classroom details. The parent, who wrote to the Tribune that she has no idea where the teacher works but knew the teacher's name from unrelated Web postings, also forwarded a copy of the teacher's blog to district officials.

"Flute player removed for not practicing, arguing with classmates, writing a suicide note, eventually transferred out of the school because her mother didn't believe her daughter wrote it," the teacher wrote in her account. "Piano class. Kid blows nose in music book, throws it on the floor. Caught 2 girls passing marijuana around the classroom in a balled up newspaper. Both students were escorted out and taken by police."

In this case, the teacher will not face discipline because she does not identify the name of her school or her students in the blog. The teacher uses a screen name and not her real name, although she does include a link to a picture of herself on vacation."If there is no way to pin it down to a specific school, there is no issue with privacy," Vaughn said.

---tdell'angela@tribune.com

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