A new social media policy in the Lodi Unified School District is being challenged in a lawsuit brought by students within the district. The policy, which is aimed at curbing instances of cyber bullying, is essentially a one page contract that students who participate in sports and other extracurricular activities are being asked to sign as a condition of their participation. However, students cite that the agreement is too vaguely worded to provide a clear template for what is and is not acceptable.
District officials counter that the intent of the document should be the focus, and that students should not fear for their First Amendment rights.
In the contract at issue, students are asked to agree to a policy that allows them to be benched from their sport, suspended from activities or simply removed from the team or other group in which they are participating. Attorney Thomas Burke, acting on behalf of the students, writes that the policy gives “school officials unfettered discretion if students’ speech – even speech taking place off campus and having no connection to school business – is ‘inappropriate'”. The students and their lawyer expressed concern that students might be unduly punished simply for “liking” a post related to gun rights protected by the Second Amendment or quoting lyrics from a rap song. Students are also worried that postings regarding controversial literature or using a vernacular unfamiliar to adults will result in unwarranted consequences.
School district officials feel that the students’ concerns are unfounded. Though they agree that the wording of the agreement could be improved, they believe that students are overlooking the broader intent of the document. Moreover, they argue that the policy will not be used to unreasonably punish students for their behavior on social media. Ralph Womack, School Board President, asserts that participation in an extracurricular activity is a privilege rather than a right and that requiring good behavior on social media is not unlike GPA requirements for student athletes.
For now, the outcome remains uncertain. However, it seems likely that these types of disagreements are likely to become more common as cyber bullying incidents increase.
If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, or school employment law, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district legal issue.