Off Campus Free Speech: Justified or Unjustified?

Jasmine B. - LLI Toledo 

In the American society, the Constitution is constantly referenced to decipher the rightness or wrongness of a person’s actions and ideas. The Bill of Rights protects each person’s free speech whether or not “society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” While in school, circumstances are different because school officials have “some latitude in regulating student speech to further educational objectives,” and if a statement or action unquestionably interferes with another student’s rights and a safe educational environment, school authorities should step in.

In the federal case, Kowalski v. Berkeley, Kowalski, a student at West Virginia high school, created a Myspace page titled, “S.A.S.H.,” which stands for “Students Against Sluts Herpes.” She intentionally invited 100 people to join the page to defame and stigmatize another student by partaking in bullying online. She then proceeded to say that school was unjustified in their punishing her because the speech was “private” and “out of school.”

In my opinion, the school was completely justified in punishing Kowalski. Bullying is unacceptable regardless of the form. Although the cyber-bullying was done off campus, it was reasonably expected to reach beyond the private venue, or the Internet, and affect the school environment.

In other words, with it being online and with other students able to see it, they could possibly show students who were not invited to see it, and things discussed on the website could be talked about in school.

 Furthermore making Kowalski the agitator to “orchestrate a targeted attack on a classmate, and did so in a manner that was sufficiently connected to the school environment.”

As a separate example of off campus free speech, in the Appeal of Ravick, a student sent 13 students an email threatening to show up to the school on the upcoming Monday and showing photos of Adolf Hitler and referencing ovens and the “Trenchcoat Mafia.”  In the decision of this case, the student’s first amendment free speech defense was dismissed because the conduct caused a disruption in school and regarded as a true threat. In comparison to Kowalski v. Berkeley, they both have the overlapping issues of intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress and orchestrating a targeted attack on classmates.


Sources Considered 

  • Kowalski v. Berkely County Schools, 652 F.3d 565 (4th Cir. 2011).
  • Walsh, Mark. "Court Upholds Discipline of Student Over Internet Bullying." The School Law Blog. Education Week. 27 July 2011.
  • LoMonte, Frank. "Supreme Court's Online Speech No-Decision Counts as a "Win" for Student First Amendment Rights." Student Press Law Center. 18 Jan. 2012.
  • "School Authority Over Cyber Bullying." WR150 First Amendment Portfolio. e-Portfolios Directory.
  • Hudson Jr., David, L. "Cyberspeech." K-12 Public School Student Expression Overview. Newseum Institute. 1 Aug. 2008.