Anyone who has been around the Internet long enough knows by now of the single greatest threat to our society today: teenage girls using the Internet.
As they litter our electronic media with sexts and txtspk, teenage girls and their social networking activities have been shown to lead to cyberbullying, online feuds, health problems, legal consequences, and Justin Bieber.
Little wonder, then, that an Indiana public school tried to punish two teenage girls for doing teenage girl things on the Internet.
A 15-year-old girl, "M.K.," held a slumber party at her home with her teenage girl friends. At the party, the girls engaged in the kind of wacky teenage girl slumber party antics that teenage boys dream about, such as dressing in lingerie, pretending to kiss each other, and striking suggestive poses involving phallic lollipops and a toy trident.
One girl, "T.V.," in all of her teenaged insidiousness, posted pictures of these antics on the Internet -- specifically, to private social networking accounts, accessible only to a select few. T.V. and M.K. later explained their actions as "joking around," motivated by a desire to "share with [their] friends how funny" they were.
Some people didn't laugh. Despite privacy protections, the pictures came to the attention of a concerned mother. The mother complained about the pictures to the school superintendent, claiming that the pictures were causing "divisiveness" among girls on the school volleyball team -- on which both M.K. and T.V. played (but on which, curiously, the concerned mother's own daughter did not).
Heroically taking a stand against the onslaught of teenage girl Internet activity, the school banned T.V. and M.K. from the volleyball team and all other extracurricular and co-curricular activities.
The punishment, however, was not merely for the girls' Internet behavior of privately posting disagreeable content. The punishment was also justified for the mere fact that the girls acted this way at a private, in-home slumber party.
Three months ago, I reported on the trend of public schools punishing students for private, at-home Internet behavior -- highlighting a New Hampshire middle school that had recently suspended a 13-year-old for privately telling her Facebook Friends that she wished her math teacher had died in the September 11 attacks 10 years ago.
In that article, I observed: "The girl's Facebook post was not public. The school may as well have punished her for muttering curses and epithets about her teacher at a slumber party at home with her friends." (Emphasis added.)
Little did I know then how on-the-nose my observation was. We now find ourselves at a point where schools seek to control students' every waking moment outside of school, Internet or no.
A federal court unequivocally held last month that the Indiana school violated T.V. and M.K.'s free speech rights. The school will probably appeal if the court determines that the school does not have Eleventh Amendment immunity from damages.
The case is certainly ripe. While courts usually rule against schools for this level of speech restriction insofar as it infringes students' First Amendment rights, the jurisprudence related to school regulation of off-campus speech is not well established. The Supreme Court did little to settle this area of law in its most recent such case in 2007, and it has yet to decide an Internet-related school speech case.
In any event, this is an important case to watch. Public schools are arms of government. Every Constitutional infringement we tolerate against our students, we welcome against ourselves. As the court in this case observed: "While the crass foolishness that is the subject of the protected speech in this case makes one long for important substantive expressions… such a distinction between the worthwhile and the unworthy is exactly what the First Amendment does not permit."
Although that pesky First Amendment may allow the moral scourge of teenage girls to pervade the Internet, at least we may take comfort in the fact that, in reality, there are no girls on the Internet.
— Joe Stanganelli is a writer, attorney, and communications consultant. He is also principal and founding attorney of Beacon Hill Law in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.