Ball State Study Examines Complex Issue of Schools and Social Media


Ball State University sent out a press release last week titled, "Study: Principals want to rein in student digital communications." It’s very interesting, so we thought we’d share:

MUNCIE, Ind. – Most high school administrators believe they have the right to control student messaging on and off school grounds even while social networking and digital communications have exploded in popularity among teens, says a new study from Ball State University.

A national survey of about 400 high school principals and administrators found that principals not only want to control e-mail, instant messaging, texting and Web sites, but also have the ability to punish students for irresponsible communications conducted outside of school.

"Principals are very apprehensive when it comes to digital communications, the Internet and certainly any types of emerging media that teens will embrace," said Warren Watson, director of J-Ideas, the First Amendment education institute at Ball State. He co-authored the study with Adam Maksl, a Ball State journalism instructor, and Vincent Filak, a former Ball State journalism professor now at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

The survey is part of a longitunal study that examines high school principals’ attitudes regarding free expression between 2004 and 2009. This was the first time principals were asked about their opinion on digital communications.

Watson said many principals indicated the urge to control communications among today’s teens, who have grown up in a world of cell phones, laptop computers and on-demand digital services.

"Many principals are much older and simply don’t want to deal with any type of digital communications," Watson said. "They wish it would all go away, but when a perceived problem pops up, they feel like they have to do something. So, they often punish first and ask questions later."

The study found the majority of respondents believed that school officials should be able to:

  • closely monitor what Web sites students visit while using school computers
  • be allowed to filter the Internet to prevent students from visiting certain Web sites while at school
  • monitor student e-mail when students send and receive it on school computers
  • discipline any student for online activity that embarrasses the school, administrators or other students, even if those activities were conducted on computers located outside school grounds.

While the study found that school administrators were neutral on the idea of surveillance of social networking sites, Maksl believes that it would be practically impossible for principals to monitor every Facebook, MySpace or Web site created by their students.

"It is not practical right now because of the way digital communications and social networking dominate students’ lives," he said. "There is so much content out there that it would consume every hour of a principal’s workday.

"But principals are still monitoring students’ social networking and Web sites, and they are punishing students for what they feel is outlandish posts, even though the work may have been done off school grounds and after the school day ends. We have various court rulings on printed content, but digital free expression is still wide open at this point. Many principals feel this gives them the opportunity to exert control."

To me, this seems pretty legally complex, so an attempt at analyzing it might be “above my paygrade,” to borrow the parlance of our President. But my take would be the following (although we’d love to hear from you on this):

Obviously, school officials should have total control of what sites are visited during school and using school resources. But I don’t believe the First Amendment has an age restriction in this case, so I don’t think students should be punished by (public school) principals for reasonably criticizing a school using personal resources after hours – mainly because the principals are technically public employees and thus arms of the government. However, the law does allow private employers to terminate staff who make disparaging comments online. So it might be a public/private issue. If you’re at a private school, you can be kicked out or punished. At a public school, maybe not. I don’t know, but that’s my gut reaction.   

But I do feel like the law should prevent people of all ages from engaging in libel/slander or threatening behavior online.

So what about your thoughts? Am I totally wrong? Any lawyers out there to put me in my place? I ain’t so good with the legaltudes.

Perhaps this is why Ball State has such an esteemed communications program — they make you think.

One thought on “Ball State Study Examines Complex Issue of Schools and Social Media

  1. I agree that principals are free to discipline if school resources are used. Your point about employees being subject to communication restrictions is valid. However, employee restrictions are voluntarily accepted as conditions of employment and any worker is free to leave the company and say whatever they want as long as it isn’t libel/slander or a violation of some contract they may have signed.

    Public school students, on the other hand, have no choice regarding school attendance as they are required by law to attend. I see no way that a public school has the right to restrict speech. They are required to educate the students and there is no “condition for receiving an education” contract similar to what most companies have. I am not a lawyer either but I would think the principals would need some law (which doesn’t exist to my knowledge) to support off-campus speech limitations.

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