Well Known Biases

Politics, Economics, and the Law

Public Education and Social Control

Austin Carroll, a (former) student at Garrett High School in Indiana, was expelled for a post he made on his personal Twitter account. There seems to be some lack of clarity of whether or not he accessed Twitter from his home computer or a school computer. In either case, it appears that the school’s computer system is able to (and apparently does) track posting’s from students’ accounts.

Where to even begin? Stories such as this angry up my blood before I’ve even begun to unpack and examine the implications.

Naturally, if the student is using a school computer, the school is within their rights to regulate the manner in which their computers are used. Yet even if we accept the school’s position that Carroll accessed Twitter from one of their machines, that still leaves several issues. Firstly, isn’t expulsion for a bit of relatively harmless profanity rather harsh? It seems like the sort of transgression which could be addressed with lesser punishments. And if expulsion is on the table for an offense such as this, one would hope that this is clearly spelled out in the usage policy. I’m sure there are provisions for punishments “up to and including expulsion,” but I somehow doubt that any of the students would have seriously expected expulsion to be leveled for cursing. It seems more like a thing you bring to bear if a student has made threats of violence.

Now let’s consider what it means for us if the school is mistaken (or, to be somewhat cynical, misrepresenting the facts). If the school is allowed to regulate speech in cases where a student is neither using school property, nor engaging in threatening speech or speech related to illegal acts, then the school is asserting total control over students’ speech, and the students effectively have “privileges” to speak, and not “rights.” Privileges which can be revoked at the school’s pleasure, if a student expresses themselves in a manner which offends the empowered school officials. The rights of minors are of course already curtailed, but given Carroll is a senior in high school, and it is nearly April, it is reasonable to assume he could easily have already turned eighteen, and therefore is legally an adult. To condense and make explicit, if Carroll is eighteen, and had posted his tweet from home, the school district is asserting the right to punish adults for (and thus control) their private speech, based not upon public-safety necessity, but simply upon what they feel to be appropriate.

Numerous locales have various “anti-bullying” legislation either enacted or in the works, which would regulate both what occurs at the school, and what occurs outside of school. Most of these seem to be overly-broad, to the point of chilling what is, or should be, protected free speech. The Carroll expulsion appears to lack even the flimsy “public safety” framing of these statutes, resting wholly on the school administrators’ sense of propriety. Happily the student body of Garrett High School appears to have reacted to the expulsion quite poorly. But if we as a society roll over on issues such as this, we set rather unnerving precedents, confirming to those in these positions of power that control of our private speech is a thing they can do. It invites authoritarianism. Those who would act as our censors should be called out, shunned, and their power delegitimized.

(I considered posting a link to Garrett High School’s website, but as I cannot be certain of directing you to the correct place, I shall refrain.)

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One response to “Public Education and Social Control

  1. John Brownlee March 31, 2012 at 12:05 am

    Seriously, the man was obviously just possessed by George Carlin.

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