Growing up in Sri Lanka, I went to a private school that had rules for how one should behave and what one could do even outside of school hours and off school property. For example, one could not go to see films on weekdays because one was supposed to be studying and not indulging in such frivolous behavior. My parents ignored this rule because I was doing well in school anyway.
I recall one occasion when I was at the theater and saw with alarm that the principal was also there and that he had seen me. Sure enough, the next day I got a message to see him in his office and he gave me a dressing down and a reminder of the rule. It did not matter to him that he had seen that I had gone to see the film with my parents.
In the US there does not exist such a broad reach of school administrators over the lives of students, but there have been some efforts to control the off-campus speech of public school students, especially online speech that can now be seen and monitored by anyone.
Clay Calvert of the University of Florida writes about these efforts. While court cases have sometimes gone against public school officials and upheld the free speech rights of students, the US Supreme Court has not as yet addressed the issue of off-campus speech.
A case in point is the Supreme Court’s famous 1969 proclamation in Tinker v Des Moines Independent Community School District that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In this case, a divided court upheld the right of students to wear to school black armbands emblazoned with peace signs as a form of political protest against the war in Vietnam. The majority reasoned that such speech could be stopped only if school officials had actual facts to believe it would lead to a substantial and material disruption of the educational atmosphere.
But Tinker was an on-campus speech case. And although the Supreme Court has considered three more student speech cases since Tinker, none involved either off-campus or digital expression.
But this could change with the case of Taylor Bell, a Mississippi high school student who posted a video criticizing two male teachers for sexually harassing female minor students. The school punished him for allegedly threatening the two teachers and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals narrowly ruled that his First Amendment rights were not violated by that action.
In November of last year, Bell filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court but they have not decided whether to accept the case. If they do, it will be an important case that establishes what free speech rights students have when they are not in school.
It seems to me that when off campus, students should have the same rights and be subjected to the same restrictions as any other person. School administrators are notoriously capricious and overly eager to clamp down on student behaviors and they should not be allowed to censor student speech off-campus.