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Talking Points

Applying Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier to the fictional case of The Vamps v. Principal Skinner. This activity is based on a modified Oxford style debate.

When school officials disallow the posting of certain student content on the school’s FaceLook fan page are the student writers' free speech rights violated?
The Vamps v. Principal Skinner
Disrupting the Learning Environment. Are students’ free speech rights violated when schools decide that specific speech may disrupt the learning environment?
Affirmative: Yes
Negative: No

Although school administrators must be given leeway to run a school efficiently, there is no evidence that the posting of the vampire satire and comments on the student wall would disrupt the learning environment. It cannot be assumed that the vampire postings would have been disruptive. The postings were presented as literary satire and the students’ comments were thoughtful, academic analyses of the tension between the First Amendment and school policies. Just because the postings dealt with controversial topics is not sufficient reason for school authorities to censor them. If school administrators are preparing students to be responsible citizens, then students must be able to investigate and post comments on the Bill of Rights and other academic topics using social media. Because the school ban was clearly based on the content of the postings, it violated the students’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech

There are limits to free speech within a public school. While the government cannot prohibit speech based upon content under most circumstances, public school authorities must be given more leeway to restrict speech in order to run a school efficiently and maintain a learning environment. Among other factors, school authorities must consider whether particular speech will disrupt the learning environment The postings on the student wall undermined Principal Skinner’s authority and promoted a vampire cult. The postings were critical of Ms. Skinner's decision to deny recognition to a student vampire club as a legitimate school organization that can meet on campus, receive student body funds, and post its activities on the student wall. Ms. Skinner felt personally threatened by the postings of a group that she described as “centered on vampirism, a cult that promotes barbaric killing.” As a principal responsible for her students, Ms. Skinner was legitimately concerned about the safe and efficient operation of the school. In light of this, she was obligated to prohibit the vampire-related student speech on the school’s FaceLook fan page.

Unlimited Public Forum. Are school FaceLook pages on the Internet an unlimited public forum that schools do not have the authority to control?

Essentially, the school established an unlimited public forum when it launched its FaceLook page on the worldwide web which, by definition, is a free and unlimited forum. School officials do not have the authority to restrict content on the Internet, just as they do not have the authority to control content in other public media. FaceLook is called social media because it is just that – social. It is designed to facilitate connection and communication without censorship. In an unlimited forum, such as the web, views live and die in the marketplace of ideas, much as they should in a robust learning environment. Schools should function as unlimited public forums where ideas are explored – not suppressed. In addition, when the faculty named a student to be the FaceLook administrator for content on the student wall, the school delegated posting decisions to the students. The school cannot prohibit student postings just because the administration might misinterpret the content and find it controversial or offensive.

The state, including public school administrators, has always had authority to limit speech in certain situations. When school authorities control access to the activity, they may limit the content of speech to what they consider appropriate. Here, the principal stopped what she called “cult-promoting speech “ on the school’s official FaceLook fan page. The page was, obviously, a limited forum because it carried the school’s logo, mascot, and official policies. Access to the student wall was limited in three ways: (1) Only students enrolled at Forks High could post; (2) In accordance with the school policy guide, only content that did not threaten the safe and efficient operation of the school could be posted; and (3) the faculty appointed a student as its representative to monitor and control content and immediately delete postings that were not in compliance with school policies. The FaceLook policies did not give students the freedom to post whatever they liked. The students abused the privilege of access to the wall, betrayed the trust of the faculty, reflected negatively on the student body, and threatened a safe and efficient learning environment. Their behavior underscored that the FaceLook fan page, as the school’s official communication vehicle, was a limited public forum that the school could and should control.

Speech Content. Do schools violate students’ free speech rights when they disallow specific content on the school’s

By establishing a student wall on the school’s fan page and putting a student in charge of it, the school waived control of the content and responsibility for it. The student wall is clearly identified on FaceLook as a forum for student thought and opinion, not official school policies. If the school decides that certain postings do not reflect school policies and positions, it can post a disclaimer on the student wall making clear that the administration is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily agree with, the content of student postings. Schools clearly violate students’ free speech rights when they disallow certain content on their FaceLook fan page.

The school retains ultimate responsibility for all content on its official FaceLook fan page. The page communicates the school’s image, values, reputation, and position in the community. The purpose of the page, as stated on the site, is to be the official communication vehicle of the school. Therefore, any postings – regardless of the author – can be attributed to the school, and school officials can be held accountable for them. The school retains the right and the duty to control the content of its FaceLook fan page to ensure that the school is not portrayed as promoting or endorsing inappropriate messages and activities. The administration must never lose sight of its responsibility to maintain a safe and efficient learning environment.

*Notes to the Moderator: Ask all audience members (jurors) to sit in the gallery behind the side they favor.

During the debate, ask the student jurors to stand and identify themselves every time they speak and make sure that no students or opinions dominate the discussion. Only audience members (jurors) in the gallery may participate in this segment of the program.

They are to direct their arguments and questions only to jurors/audience members on the other side of the issue. No questions/comments for the Judge and attorneys are allowed during the floor debate. This is time for the jurors to try to persuade each other. The student attorneys may not defend their positions during the open floor debate.