A judge in Florida has ruled that a student suspended for criticizing her teacher on Facebook should not have been punished because what she did was protected by the First Amendment. This ruling is in contrast to other recent court rulings, meaning at some point the U.S. Supreme Court will have to weigh in and set precedent.
Two years ago, Katherine Evans, who is now 20, started a Facebook group called “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!” and featured a photograph of the teacher and an invitation for other students to “express your feelings of hatred.”
“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," Magistrate Barry Garber ruled last Friday.
The decision came two weeks after the nation’s first two appellate opinions differed on whether students have a First Amendment right in the online world beyond the classroom. Those conflicting decisions are the closest to a possible Supreme Court review.
The Court has never addressed off-campus, online student speech. The lower courts appear to be guided by the high court’s 1969 Tinker decision, that said student expression may not be suppressed unless school officials reasonably conclude that it will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” But that case addressed on-campus speech, and it is now being applied to students’ online, off-campus speech four decades later.
Judge Garber noted the lack of guidance by the Supreme Court, saying “controlling precedent may be unclear.” But he said Evans had every right to criticize her teacher, even if she opened herself up to a defamation suit.
In the end, the highest court in the land will have to decide whether First Amendment free speech rights apply to the Internet.