Does Free Speech Change Online?

November 19, 2010 Opinion

The First Amendment— freedom of speech—is one of the most fundamental rights that Americans have. It is necessary in order for democracy to exist, allowing us to essentially speak our minds. At what point is okay to continue to speak your mind even if negative consequences come from it? This issue will most likely remain unresolved for a while, but a whole different aspect of it is brought up in online communities such as Facebook.

Several cases have arisen in recent news dealing with this controversy. A federal ruling made by the Supreme Court supported a former Florida high school senior named Katherine Evans who was denounced for “cyber bullying” her English teacher on Facebook. Now 20 years old, she was suspended two years ago for creating a Facebook group about her teacher titled, “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!” Evans invited classmates to join this group and express their negative feelings toward the teacher. This action was brought to court by Phelps, resulting in the aforementioned case.

As Barry Garber, magistrate of Florida, states, “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.”

The Supreme Court has never objectively addressed the specification of off-campus, online student speech. Since the 1969 Tinker vs. Des Moines decision, in which the Supreme Court said students have a First Amendment right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court has stuck to this framework. The Tinker decision, which dealt with on-campus freedom of speech, is now being applied to more recent cases.

A similar case deals with a Connecticut employee who was fired from her firm for bad-mouthing her supervisor on Facebook. The labor board claimed that the company unjustly denied the employee union representation during an investigatory interview, as well as “maintained and enforced an overly broad blogging and Internet posting policy.” Although the National Labor Relations Act prevents employers from talking about workplace conditions or forming a union with their coworkers, comments can have unprotected status due to where the discussion takes place, the subject matter, the nature of the outburst, or whether the comments were provoked by an employer’s unfair labor practice. Certain cases are put to rest because of the First Amendment, while others completely go against its principles. Through online communities, the issue of whether something is in fact freedom of speech or not will remain controversial.

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