Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Student profiles, teacher blogs, and schools

Media reports have recently presented concerns of school systems about student profiles on various sites such as myspace.com and facebook.com. These are webpages that students maintain at home with their own time and resources, not school resources. Students, sometimes desiring to use the Internet to maintain popularity or to “meet people,” have sometimes presented very personal information and images that, even when often legal, may attract unwanted attention from certain adults to the students and maybe even to the families and schools. (In fairness, NBC News reports that facebook.com, which is particularly popular with college students as opposed to high school, restricts access to students with valid school email addresses.) Students have sometimes made unfavorable comments about certain teachers or other students, and sometimes comments are offensive according to mainstream social standards of behavior in public.

The same concerns can occur with Internet content in any format, such as blogs and personal domains. Because the content is self-published into a public space, in principle anyone on the planet can find it, unless specific measures (like login screens and visitor verification) are taken to restrict the audience. Apparently, some colleges are already asking admissions-applying students to inform them about any Internet profiles or other websites, and some employers are starting to check for them.

Teachers would face comparable concerns with any material that they put in a public space. Common sense would exclude teacher and student publication of illegal or patently offensive content, and that need not be belabored here. What concerns me is the problems that may result from speech that seems legitimate to the speaker and that is normally protected by the First Amendment. Teachers could, for example, present material on their own that would have been prohibited by school board approved curricula but that could be found by students anyway. Substitute teachers who do not grade students may believe that they should have more freedom to publish what they want, and school administrators are likely to disagree with them.

Generally, the law gives schools quite a bit of control over what is published with school resources, and less control of what is published with personal resources, but schools may intervene when there is a substantial risk that the material can disrupt instruction at the school. Some private schools have already taken substantial steps to limit student blogging and self-profiling on line, even from home. Public schools may not have the same legal right to suppress speech as do private and parochial schools. But there is quite a body of case law involving how the lines may be drawn (regarding public individual speech by both students and teachers), including Pickering-Connick, Tinker, Ubriaco, Emmet v. Kent, Beussink v. Woodland, Bethlehem, Porter v. Ascension, Ginsberg v. New York. Teachers may be expected to show good judgment and deference to public sensitivity to their suitability to work, somewhat intimately at times, with less mature minors, even with public individual speech that is otherwise lawful and protected by the First Amendment. Some kinds of "public service" work (like military service as well as teaching) sometimes require that an individual keep a lower profile than usual.

One paradigm problem concerns the effect of “personal stuff” when put in a public space. Political issues generally are debated by lobbying and political interest groups that collect dues from constituents to advocate the constituents’ interests. This makes political debate, while “professional,” adversarial in tone and seems to impart some intellectual dishonesty, or at least lack of objectivity, that is disarming to someone trained in the academic world. Personal narratives can give a richness and subtlety to both sides of any issue (for example gay and lesbian issues) that is obviously needed. Nevertheless, many people feel that self-publication of personal narratives or scenarios (on the Internet) and calling the material “literature” is inappropriate, because of the unwanted attention it can draw to others. In extreme cases such materials might be construed as violations of solicitation laws. This is a new and poorly understood area, but also a likely emerging area of intellectual property practice and law.

The potential controversies of student and teacher self-publication of their own materials on the Internet parallel a wider concern about the workplace in general. Persons who have direct reports or who represent their employers to the public obviously must use great care in using a public space like the World Wide Web, however sincere are their intentions. As with students, one wonders whether employers will gradually adopt the practice of "skip tracing" job applicants with search engines, although name synonyms could make such practices even more questionable than would the usual concerns about off the job activities and personal autonomy.

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