Freedom to comment on Internet sites not always equal

Teachers can be restrained by their jobs from posting on the Internet while speech by students is generally protected.

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Last week a middle school teacher in North Carolina was suspended from her job, and could be fired, for making derogatory remarks about students on a Facebook page.

Meanwhile, a Florida student who was suspended for setting up a Facebook page to complain about her teacher is back in the classroom. A lawsuit against the school district was filed claiming that the student's First Amendment right to free speech had been violated. Last week a federal judge ruled the student did have a constitutionally protected right to express her views about the "worst teacher I've ever met."

Student Katherine Evans' "speech falls under the wide umbrella of protected speech," Judge Barry Garber wrote. "It was an opinion of a student about a teacher, that was published off-campus, did not cause any disruption on-campus, and was not lewd, vulgar, threatening, or advocating illegal or dangerous behavior."

We would agree. The key point being that the remarks were not made in the classroom or at school. The remarks were published off campus and on the student's own time.

So, does that mean the North Carolina teacher blasting her students on Facebook is also protected speech? Probably not.

A teacher is a public employee. Teachers are subject to a code of conduct and must follow rules established by school officials. That extends to behavior off campus and outside of school hours.

In the case, Melissa Hussain was suspended with pay after she commented on her Facebook page she was subjected to a hate crime by Christian students at her school. The students and their parents objected to the postings, which talked about how she "shamed" the students. Comments from Hussain's friends on the Facebook page added to the controversey. One referred to the students as "ignorant Southern rednecks."

"I don't defend what the kids were doing," said Murray Inman, a parent of one of Hussain's students. "I just couldn't imagine an educator, or a group of educators, engaging in this kind of dialogue about kids."

Yes, it is highly inappropriate. This school district, like most school districts, does have a code of conduct that calls for employees to protect their integrity and reputation as well as the school's.

"We are public figures. We are held to a higher standard," said Jennifer Lanane, president of the Hussain's local teachers' union.

That might not seem fair to some, but it is certainly proper. Teachers and other people in positions of authority can have clear restraints on their behavior -- and speech -- as a term of their employment.

While students aren't protected when making make false claims that invite lawsuits, it is clear that students have wider latitude to express their views than do teachers. Some constructive venting can actually be healthy.

Still, parents have an obligation to make sure that freedom is not abused or used for malicious purposes.

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