Trash Talk Speech

Posted March 02, 2010, at 4:41 p.m.

The never-ending debate over limits on free speech entered a new era with the rise of the Internet and e-mail. More recently, popular social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace offer another venue for free speech and its limits to collide.

Last week, the BDN reported that three Brewer High School students were suspended from school for posting comments on Facebook directed at students from Edward Little High School, whose basketball team had defeated Brewer’s team in the state tournament. The comments could fairly be labeled as taunting, verbal bullying and possibly even racist.

Unlike the kind of trash talking that may occur on a basketball court or football field, comments posted in the digital world live on, perhaps in perpetuity. Adults, as well as high school students, have learned the hard way that a wisecrack meant to be sarcastic and not literal has the potential to em-barrass the writer in a very public way.

It’s safe to assume the students have learned that hard lesson.

But the school district’s response to the comments, which were made off-campus, not during school hours and on personal computers, raises questions about where the boundary between home and school lies.

Granted, too many parents have abdicated their responsibility to guide their children toward appropriate social decorum, so schools must step in. But in this case, it seems the school should have pursued a middle option. If school officials contacted the parents of the teens who made the inappropriate comments and were satisfied that action would be taken, the matter could have ended there. School officials might be justified in meting out some kind of punishment beyond calling the parents, but suspending the students from class seems to have gone too far.

Brewer School Superintendent Dan Lee defended the school’s actions, saying it maintains clear policies banning what has become known as cyberbullying. “If students are harassing each other outside of school and it disrupts the operation at school, it’s our business,” he told the BDN.

As admirable as Dr. Lee’s comprehensive approach to education and community is, it uncomfortably expands the reach of school. If Bangor and Brewer teens are playing pickup basketball in a local park on the weekend and get into a pushing and shoving match over a foul, then settle the conflict among themselves, should the schools step in on Monday?

Educators are to be commended for being vigilant, and for showing teens the permanent nature of the Internet. And they are wise to consider that comments posted on a Web site could incite an escalating war of words that could lead to violence. But they should be reminded that the primary responsibility for a child’s behavior outside of school lies with parents.

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