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Proposed Indiana Law Seeks to Allow Schools to Punish Off-Campus Speech

In Indiana, lawmakers are considering new legislation that would give schools the power to punish students for legal behavior that occurs away from school, including statements and opinions they post on personal blogs or Facebook accounts.

freedom%20of%20speech%20off%20campus.jpgThe bill was approved by the State’s House of Representatives in January 2012 and is now in the hands of the Indiana Senate, according to the Student Press Law Center. It has been justified as an attempt to prevent cyberbullying and school cheating.

Indiana law already allows students to be disciplined for illegal behavior that occurs off campus, as long as the behavior could reasonably be considered to interfere with “school purposes or educational function.” State representative Eric Koch wants to amend the existing law to cover legal behavior, as well.

The new law has Ken Falk of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana concerned about conflicts with the Constitution. “From a First Amendment perspective,” he said, “if the student engages in lawful activity off of school grounds, there’s a very high standard that has to be applied before that can somehow lead to discipline.”

The Indiana School Boards Association supports Koch, who is not concerned about conflicts with the First Amendment. He cited Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools, in which a federal appeals court upheld a school’s right to punish disruptive speech that occurred away from school. “I wouldn’t knowingly promote anything that would infringe First Amendment rights,” he said.

Falk questioned the need for a law concerning cheating and cyberbullying. Cheating should continue to be handled as it has been in the past, he said, and cyberbullying should only be punishable when there is an imminent threat of violence. The proposed legislation is ripe for abuse, according to Falk, who said that a student who belongs to a gay rights group, for example, could be punished if the school decides the activity is troublesome.

Frank LoMonte, of the Student Press Law Center, said that the law could set a bad precedent. “This could be like a bad cold that gets passed from state to state,” he said. He warned that the law could be abused by schools that could use it for image control.