Thursday, May 01, 2008

Implicit content becoming a bigger issue for school systems trying to protect minor students

As I noted earlier this week on my Major Issues blog (link here), school districts are becoming much more concerned about the “implicit” harm to minors that comes from the social context of much content on the Web, than they are about pornography specifically, or about the supposedly narrower definition of “harmful to minors.”

Recently, there has been a lot of media attention to cyber bullying, which usually takes place from home, but which concerns school systems if the effects come into the school campus. There has also been concern about content posted by students and often enough, teachers, which might be generally acceptable on the Net in an “open society” familiar with other media (like the content of movies) but which could affect a teacher’s or student’s “reputation” when found directly by searches and misinterpreted out of context.

Some teachers, including substitutes, have been disciplined or fired when content was found and generated complaints from parents. Some of the issues that have occurred included: use of certain words with double meanings, self-misrepresentation in “fiction” or “role playing”, underage alcohol consumption or drug use or promotion, semi-nudity that is provocative but that does not meet the usual meaning of pornography, or suggestive phrases used by people in looking for dates.

Substitutes can often be removed from lists at specific schools without cause or explanation, and Internet speech can definitely lead to this, leading to deadlocked situations where the substitute teacher cannot get a "rational" answer to what was objectionable about his or her speech, or have a normal opportunity to use First Amendment arguments.

School districts could consider written personnel policy changes that could entrench the teachers' role "in loco parentis" in balance to public employee First Amendment claims. Generally, state laws regard teachers as having "custodial" or supervisory relationships with students, but school districts could explicit say that this relationship extends to public spaces on the Internet (especially those accessible to search engines), even for subs (at least for long term subs). This sounds like the "at all times and in all places" doctrine of the military. They could hold teachers responsible for how students may interpret content found randomly out of context, as to "purpose" rather than just as an abstract artistic expression. This could lead to legal complications and in some cases might motivate enticement-based prosecutions. It might drive people away from teaching.

It's also noteworthy that a quiz at the recently opened Newseum in Washington DC specifically reiterates the idea that a principal may censor a student's personal Myspace or Facebook page only when school function or safety has been or is obviously likely to be endangered. It would sound as though a similar First Amendment interpretation would apply to teachers, but it sounds as though it is possible that the law could take into consideration the function of the teacher as a role model or custodial or authority figure.

Again, I wonder how content labeling could be used to help manage this kind of problem.

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