Monday, August 11, 2008

Granting Students the Freedom of Expression: Worth the Risk

A few years ago, a former school of mine took a group of bright kids and created a debate team. Within a matter of only a few years, the debaters earned spots in the national tournament year after year. We had created a team of talented and relentless debaters. We had also created a monster. We soon discovered that teaching kids to think critically and to express themselves articulately came with a price. Our debaters took on all comers, including our teachers. When the teachers complained about how the debaters were carrying on in class discussions, we faced a dilemma. After all, the debaters were doing exactly what they had been trained to do (and they were doing it well). We gave the students a voice then, when the voice got louder than we anticipated, we wanted them to be quiet. Something about that didn’t seem quite right.

Fast forward to 2008…

Today we’re encouraging kids to write and express themselves with class blogs. As we encourage kids to express themselves, we need to consider a few important points. First, we may create blogging monsters who write well but who occasionally write something we don’t want to read. Can we handle this? If not, perhaps we shouldn’t run the risk of giving kids a voice, that is, a digital voice. I believe, however, the risk is well worth the potential reward.
Second, if and when we do encounter students expressing themselves in a way that makes us uncomfortable, we have limited means to control what they say or have said. For some, this news may be very unsettling. For others, though, this may be good news.

Remember, the Supreme Court said in Tinker that students do not "shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." This means that public schools cannot censor what students say on blogs unless the blog entries/comments fall into the category of “material disruption.” Independent schools have a little more power to censor what students say, especially with conduct clauses in contracts and handbooks, acceptable use policies, etc.

Things change a little if the blog in question is a school-hosted or school-sponsored blog. If this is the case, the school, either public or independent, has more authority to censor based on the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood ruling, which initially dealt with a school newspaper. In the case of a school publication, or in our case a school-hosted or school-sponsored blog, a school can censor because what is said in the blog could be perceived by the public as officially supported or endorsed by the school. However, if the blog is one where students rather than the administration control content, the blog may be viewed as a public forum thereby making it more difficult for a school to control what students say.

I would encourage you not to be scared away from class or school blogs by what some students might say or do if given a forum in which to express themselves. Rather, embrace the challenge of teaching students how to make worthwhile and valuable contributions to class discussions, to carry on meaningful conversations in the community at large, and to disagree without being disagreeable.

For more information on student bloggers and their rights, see EFF.

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