Should schools be allowed to regulate students’ social media presence?

In recent years, cyberbullying has become the primary form of bullying  high school students face.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, sixteen percent of students between grades nine and twelve experienced some form of cyberbullying in 2019.  It is defined as the use of electronic communication to bully a person and generally takes place through texting or social media apps, such as Instagram and TikTok.  There are many ways that cyberbullying occurs, from threatening messages to hurtful posts, to doxing (violating someone’s privacy by publicly posting personal information online).  Each of these is incredibly harmful to high school students and sometimes leads to mental health problems. 

New York has various laws that attempt to combat cyberbullying.  While there are not any laws that directly address cyberbullying, it does fall under the general umbrella of the state’s bullying laws.  New York also requires schools to have strategies in place to prevent harassment, bullying, and discrimination, online or in person.

When it comes to school regulation of social media, the rules are less clear.  In 1969, the Supreme Court gave schools the right to interfere with students’ speech if it was substantially disruptive.  This, though, would not directly apply to cyberbullying, which often takes place off-campus.  It falls into a grey area, and therefore policies differ from school to school.  Some schools may not regulate social media at all, allowing students to speak freely on any topic to anyone on social media.  Others can be the opposite, punishing students for any potentially hurtful posts or messages sent.   Finding the balance between allowing for the freedom of speech and regulating harmful posts is difficult, but necessary, especially today. 

Recently, the Schreiber administration sent a letter to the student body regarding an anonymous TikTok account called @shs.shipss.  The users of the account “ship” various Schreiber students, almost exclusively sophomores, to create fake couples.  The account has gone viral, attracting viewers both outside and all over the United States with its top video gaining 5.1 million views and 842.5K likes.

In the letter, the administration stated they have “made several attempts to contact TikTok in the hopes of getting them to take down the account to no avail.”  They also have an ongoing active investigation in the hopes of uncovering the owners of the account.  Although the administration has conducted numerous interviews with possible owners of the account, they have been unable to identify the student(s) responsible.  

We became aware of the account through concerned students who were upset by the tone of the comments,” said Principal Dr. Ira Pernick.

Many of the comments on these videos are both national and international viewers discussing the appearances of the students featured in the videos like “he’s so cute” or “omg she’s so pretty.”  Many are also hypothesizing the person running the account or requesting future “ships.”  This may make the students in the videos uncomfortable, which explains why many would go to administration for the account to be removed.

In a Schreiber Times poll, 74% of 96 student respondents agreed the school has no right to regulate what students post online.  However, in contrast, 68.8% of students believe the school has the right to punish students should they post or comment on inappropriate, offensive, and vulgar content online.   However, it can be assumed that the Schreiber Ships account is not included in this definition because 71.1% of students think the account was a “joke.”  Another 10.4% did not know of the account, and only 17.7% thought it was bullying. 

When the same group was polled, it was determined that only 3.1% would greatly alter their posting habits if they could be punished for their postings.  On a scale of one to five, one being heavily modified, five being not at all, 38.5% decided they would not change their habits if they could be punished for it.  Polling indicates that even if students knew they could be punished for their online behavior, a majority would maintain their behavior. 

In June 2021, the Supreme Court released its decision in the Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. case, which provided an answer to the question of whether First Amendment rights prohibit school officials from regulating students’ off-campus speech, generally in the form of their social media content.  The case centered around a student, B.L., who tried out for her high school’s varsity cheerleading team, but only made the junior varsity squad.  Outside of school and on the weekend, she posted an expletive-ridden story on social media, which was seen by her fellow students and cheer participants.  Some of her teammates expressed concern over the image to the coaches, and B.L. was removed from the team for the year.  B.L. promptly sued the school, and the case worked its way through the court system.

The previous precedent by the Court found that schools can regulate students’ speech when it uses vulgar or lewd language on school grounds or promotes illegal drug use on field trips, or, as in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision, when  acts of personal expression impact the functioning of the school day.  However, in an 8-1 decision in favor of B.L., the Supreme Court ruled that her off-campus speech was protected by the First Amendment because it did not result in “substantial disruption” and highlighted several features of off-campus speech, including that geographically, it lies under the parent’s jurisdiction, rather than under the school’s watch.

“If today’s decision teaches any lesson, it must be that the regulation of many types of off-premises student speech raises serious First Amendment concerns, and school officials should proceed cautiously before venturing into this territory,” said Justice Stephen Breyer. 

The boundaries of social media use for teachers are much more subjective with less clear precedence.  The 1968 Pickering v. Board of Education decision created the so-called Pickering balancing test, in which an employee’s First Amendment right to free speech on a matter of public concern or opinion is balanced against an employer’s right to an efficient, conflict-free workplace. 

In 2018, a Georgia teacher was suspended for five days over a Facebook post criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement.  She sued the public school, in which one-third of the students are African American, but the case was not reviewed by the Georgia Supreme Court. However, a justice warned that there may be a First Amendment overreach and that the employee may be entitled to qualified immunity (protection for government officials from alleged civil rights infractions) in the matter.

Despite the gray area in constitutionality for teacher social media usage, 80.7% of surveyed students believe that faculty should be able to freely post their views without repercussions.  It appears that most students believe that school administrators do not have the right to regulate the online presence of either teachers or students.

The school’s involvement in various social media accounts over the past month has been a topic of debate in the community.  These accounts all have a common theme of cyberbullying (threatening and harassing behavior on social media).  Schreiber has decided to get involved only when activity violates the code of conduct that exists in the physical building.  Unfortunately, accounts such as @shs.shipss have used their platforms to entertain an audience at the expense of other students instead.  The student handbook explains that the school has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and the school is acting in a way that seems to reflect that.  

Other schools have faced similar problems as social media use continues to increase.  Many schools have ruled that there is no room for bullying in any form in modern-day society, while others have avoided taking action because of immoral actions occurring outside of the premise of the schools.  Cases such as Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. have gained mass attention as of late because there is a clear legal rights dispute on whether or not cyberbullying is a problem for which the school is responsible.  Few dispute whether cyberbullying is morally wrong; however, some dispute whether school district authorities should enforce it.