“Congress shall make no law”: Students consider the cost of online speech
Students face the implications of political and personal online speech
December 14, 2021
Though Grace Harris, sophomore, rarely used social media regularly, like any other teenager, she had the urge to check her Instagram at least once a day. This time around, however, the last thing she was expecting to see was a photo of her and her softball friends holding hands. The picture itself was not an anomaly, but the fact that the smiling trio was featured on @mhscouples was a humorous surprise.
“When they (the joke MHS Instagram accounts) first started, people were really upset about it,” Grace said. “I think once people were able to realize that these are just joke accounts and it’s not meant to bring anyone down or harm anyone. I think it’s just all fun.”
Though for some this trend of MHS account posts have been lighthearted ways to engage with the school, they have also sparked a larger conversation about students’ rights and online speech. Much has changed since 1969 when the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker V. Des Moines that students’ rights don’t end at the school gate. Amidst other major changes, for many students social media has a prime method of getting one’s voice heard.
“Free speech (to me means) I have the right to voice my opinion,” Tobin Thayer, senior, said. “Some things should not be said, but they are. You have your right. Honestly just be courteous with your amendments. The best part of it to me is the freedom of press. I enjoy the fact that the people can find out what the government’s doing, even if it causes them to get in trouble later on. It’s better for the people to know what’s happening.”
With the rising popularity of exercising one’s First Amendment rights on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, there also comes the question of deciphering between the realm of social media and reality. Though this conflict was initially only a concern for professional media, the access almost anyone now has to voice political speech online has raised questions about social media’s similar effects.
“We determine in the media what’s important for the public to consider at any moment, to think about,” Mr. Christopher Benson, associate professor in Medill at Northwestern University and lawyer, said during a lecture about media responsibility. “We make those determinations. You can see now how we’re causing you to think in certain ways.”
For students, reality and social media often intersect in the form of school punishment or censorship. Especially in a school environment, punishment for online expression is still a developing phenomenon—in 2017, then freshman Mahanoy Area High School student Brandi Levy faced a year-long suspension for posting a frustrated Snapchat story about her school and cheer team. More recently, students at Oregon High School staged a walkout after two teachers promoting an anti-LGBTQ organization were reinstated.
“Online (I think schools should) have zero (control),” Tobin said. “We are not in school, you have no authority over really anything. You have no authority over me when I am at my house. If I’m holding a sign in front of my lawn saying f— MHS, you can’t do s—. But, as soon as I step on that sidewalk, interfering with the school, then that becomes a problem.”
In 2021, after Brandi’s parents sued the school, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. Despite this, this case remains relevant for students everywhere—during the ruling the Court also ruled that schools can “categorically punish” student speech outside of school, if it “found its way into school,” according to Mr. Brett Johnson, assistant professor of journalism studies in the Missouri School of Journalism.
“If a student made a threat on social media…a school could take that seriously and punish the student for it to try to protect the safety of students, especially in what many scholars call the school shooting generation, sadly,” Mr. Johnson said.
For many students this case hits close to home: whether political or personal, the fear of being haunted by online mistakes is real. Embarrassing photos or mistaken remarks caught by watchful eyes can lead to a lifetime struggle, even if humorous in the moment. Even more, the challenge of being tagged or posted without consent has become a major dilemma in the age of the internet. For Luka Stepvonovich, senior, the trend of joke MHS Instagram accounts is an example of this.
“I think that they’re (the MHS Instagram accounts) very classless,” Luka Steponovich, senior, said. “This isn’t Gossip Girl, no one cares. I do think that it’s a great thing that we can stay in touch with each other. It’s just a matter of some people posting content that’s tasteless, inappropriate or maybe just misinterpreting what someone is saying on the internet.”
Though for some this trend of MHS account posts have been lighthearted ways to engage with the school, for others their effects appear to do more harm than good. For Nneka Oniah, sophomore, being featured on @mhsslumped three times was not a major cause for concern, though she understood why some of her peers would be frustrated. Other accounts, such as @mhscouples (now deleted) and @mhsconfessions, received mixed reaction.
“I thought it was funny,” Nneka said. “I think it’s just a lighthearted joke. A lot of people aren’t talking to people that they don’t know already, and it’s a good way to meet new people or see different sides of people they didn’t know. I do see how it could harm other people, because there are some pages about confessions, and it’s just spreading rumors and lies.”
The challenge of using speech for students is not just limited to social media posts or retweets. Striking a balance between expressing oneself freely online and maintaining common courtesy is a constant teeter-totter emphasized by the school environment.
“Freedom of speech is the ability to speak freely,” Luka said. “I think this country should probably be a little bit more censored. Hate speech should never be allowed, especially from representatives as we are seeing now. I do think that we should draw the line somewhere.”