Mom’s social media posts are driving us crazy. What to do?

Free speech seems to be freer than ever, no?  All of us have instant access to the entire world through social media.  So what can a school district do when a parent or non-parent citizen posts defamatory material on the web?

The starting point in thinking about that is to remember that the First Amendment protects freedom of expression in all of its ways.  We can speak. We can write. We can express an opinion symbolically (black armbands). We can post on the Internet. It’s all “expression” and thus protected from government interference.

Next: consider who the speaker is. In the context of public schools, the speakers fall into three categories: students, employees and everyone else. There are limits on student free speech, as illustrated by a string of Supreme Court cases. While attending school or school activities students cannot be vulgar, cannot promote illegal drug use, and cannot engage in bullying or other forms of expression that can reasonably be expected to cause a substantial disruption of school or to interfere with the rights of others. Also, sometimes student speech is “school sponsored” such as the student newspaper or yearbook. Schools have more control of the content of those publications.

Employee speech is restricted in the school setting as well. School employees who are “speaking as a citizen” enjoy the same constitutional protections as we all do.  So campaign for your candidate. Write a letter to the editor. Express yourself. But while on the job, employee speech is more restricted. This restriction applies to other constitutional protections as well, such as freedom of religion.  That’s why there are restrictions on teachers praying with students at school.

There are no restrictions on the constitutional freedom of expression by the third group—the “everyone else” group.  This does not mean there are no restrictions.  It just means that their rights under the constitution are unfettered.  So the government (i.e., public school officials) cannot silence or stifle them.

But there are other restrictions on freedom of expression.  Making a false statement of fact about a person is a slander, if verbal, and a libel if written.  Sometimes people use their “freedom of expression” in a way that amounts to illegal harassment.  Some schools invoke peer pressure on parents by asking them to sign off on a “parent code of conduct.”

School officials should tread carefully here.  The starting point is to consider which category the speaker falls into. After that, if you think some sort or corrective action, or a warning perhaps, is called for, the Dawg suggests you seek legal counsel. It can get tricky.


 Enjoy the weekend, Loyal Readers! More Dawg Bones next week!