Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Mass Communication and Media Arts
This dissertation investigates the issue of public junior high and high school students who are punished at school for their online speech that they created when they were off-campus. Specifically, it examines the issue of when students are punished at school for online speech that criticizes teachers and administrators, rather than the issue of student-on-student cyberbullying. Because the United States Supreme Court has not yet accepted any case that involves off-campus online student speech, this dissertation summarizes and analyzes federal appellate court decisions in such cases. Appellate courts in six federal circuits have heard and ruled in cases involving students’ off-campus online speech. This dissertation examines the precedent those courts have applied to outline the circumstances under which the courts find for the student or school officials. Because court decisions depend on the application of precedential case law, this dissertation includes a thorough examination of those major Supreme Court student speech precedents: West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, and Morse v. Frederick. This research project also examines how legal analysts are currently interpreting the issue of school punishment of off-campus online speech to determine how they recommend courts proceed in such cases. Through review of both precedent and law review articles, it examines two branches of legal thought that underlie the issue: what role courts see schools playing in the education of students as citizens and how far courts are willing to go in extending schools’ “in loco parentis” role to off-campus speech. It also reports on societal issues underlying student speech on social media: how social media users can create “community” online and how teens spend their time online. Because legal research carries with it the tradition of offering guidance to judges on how to rule in a particular area, this dissertation concludes with a proposal for how courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, should rule in cases involving student speech that is critical of school officials or school policy to grant students complete First Amendment protection for all off-campus online speech that does not threaten the school community with violence or libel anyone, whether school official or student.
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