Mark Goodman is a lawyer with the Student Press Law Center, which advocates for students’ free press rights. In this interview, he answered my questions about school policies toward MySpace and other forms of expression on the Internet.
What rights do students have to create their own blogs or MySpaces? Are the laws different for public and private schools?
There’s really no limitation on their ability to create their own Web site either on social networking space or on their own too. … Schools think they can control what students do at home but the court has made it very clear that students have the rights of free expression. …
California private schools have limitations that don’t exist anywhere else in the country. The Leonard Law says that private schools can’t punish students for expressing themselves in ways that would be protected by the First Amendment outside of school. A copy of this law is found on splc.org/law_library.asp.
What does the Leonard Law specifically say?
Basically what it says is that a private school cannot punish a student for engaging in expression that would be protected by the First Amendment outside of school.
Even if students have signed a code of conduct?
The Leonard Law says they can’t do it, they simply can’t punish a student for that form of expression. A school policy cannot trump a state law.
Does this law only exist in California?
Only in California. Similar laws have been proposed in other states, but have not actually been enacted.
Can schools tell students what to do on their sites or censor "out-of-school" activity?
We have seen this just as much about students creating their own private Web sites. We’ve seen a lot of efforts from schools trying to punish students for that. And again, in public schools the school doesn’t have that authority.
Do you think that the primary goal should be to protect teenagers or to give them the liberties of free expression?
I think the key is that schools do have an interest in warning students and their parents what’s out there when it comes to risks. The school has knowledge that can help students to protect themselves, I think they have an obligation to supply this knowledge. But the ultimate decisions should be up to the teenager and the parents. You can think the same thing with books. There are some schools that may say that this book isn’t appropriate for a certain age group, but the parents may think that the student is mature enough to read it. Informing, educating is one thing; restricting is another thing entirely. The school shouldn’t have the authority to do what should be up to parents.
How much of the Constitution applies to teenagers?
In theory it all applies. There’s no question that teens have First Amendment rights … It isn’t that it doesn’t give teenagers rights, but the rights don’t extend as far as they would for adults.
Where does the legal system draw the line concerning how far the rights should extend?
They don’t draw one line, they draw about 100 of them. In every different context they draw different lines as to where the rights of students should lie. On one hand, they draw the line so that the school has more authority, but on the other hand, they draw the line further away that gives the parents more authority over the school always.
Does this mean that parents can always argue with the school, give their child permission to do what they want to do online, and the school then cannot punish the child?
In the context of the public school, yes. The school doesn’t have the right to override the parents.
What legal implications can arise concerning MySpaces that contain borderline child pornography?
I’ve not really heard of a context involving any legal action. My sense is that MySpace and other Web sites like that have their own standards that they work around. If for any reason they break the rules, their material would be removed and they may lose their site.
Can someone be prosecuted in court for what they say on their blogs or MySpace? (example: a person says he’s a drug dealer)
It could be but it’s not very likely. … If the prosecutor were to use this against them in court, it’s not very reliable. However, what it might do is prompt an investigation that will turn up other evidence.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I would certainly caution anyone who is creating a MySpace page to think through what they’re doing before they do it. Realize that your information could be accessible to people you don’t want to see it and be careful what info you do make available online. We stand by the principles that expressions outside of the school should be up to the parents and students and not the school.