My sister-in-law prompted an interesting conversation over sausage and pierogi yesterday morning, in response to a question I asked in Facebook last week:

Does a school district have the right to scan students’ Facebook pages and assign consequences to those that express dislike for certain teachers or use profanity in any way?

Linda Clinton tossed this question over to the Edjurist for response. Many of my colleagues question the ethics behind such behavior, and when the question came up yesterday, I wasn’t surprised when my husband and sister-in-law expressed their outrage as well. But Kate raised another point, and I’d like to share it here and get your perspective on it, if I could. She wondered how possible it might be that the current generation of young people–the kids who have grown up photographed, videotaped, blogged, Facebooked, and perpetually socially connected–might not be as aware of or sensitive to their rights to privacy. And if this is the case, is it possible that they might be less likely to defend those rights?

I think this is an important consideration.

So. What do you think?

Is it possible that our children might be far more comfortable having this right infringed upon?

Is it important for us to attend to this in some way?



  1. I found it interesting that when my 6th grade students and I watched the TED 6th Sense video many of them were concerned that projecting info from the web on another person’s shirt with the device would violate that person’s privacy. You can read some of their comments here: I pointed out that the personal information being projected had been created on the internet by that person. They had very stong ideas about privacy, but were perhaps unrealistic about the separation between the virtual and physical worlds. This did not seem to matter to students. I wonder if students, and a lot of adults, have different ideas about privacy depending on the medium. Despite all I know about privacy (former life- law student), I still am likely a little less careful about what I say on the net because the sense of anonymity the screen and lack of physical proximity to others provides.

  2. Watching the kids I teach sign up to sites with no qualms convinces me they are more comfortable with a public presence. Staff are far more reluctant; they question and want clarification that their email won’t be shared etc etc. I do think we need to explain processes to our students and let them know that having a public profile means something. I don’t know if they are so hung up on the privacy thing, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be alerting them to both the possibilities and pitfalls of a public presence.

  3. Hi Jenny and Meredith–I agree with you on all counts, and I know that we often speak to these realities. I’m comfortable being transparent about the thinking and learning I do with other educators online, and I’ve learned a lot along the way about how uncomfortable many are, still. While I might encourage educators to share what they are doing in social spaces as well, I also know that even when I’m blogging about teachers in *positive* ways, it makes a few uncomfortable–particularly those who still see that sort of sharing as very competitive and threatening. I need to honor that perspective, I find. Everyone has a right to their privacy.

    Is it possible that students who are used to such “exposure” will be less willing to protect their rights to privacy when they may find them trounced upon? I agree that students need to be aware that all that they say can and will be monitored by an audience larger than they may have intended, but my real question is this–when do school officials have a right to exact consequences for the things that students say online? For example, I’m aware of a student who is being punished by school officials for placing a reasonable and appropriate criticism of a teacher on her protected Facebook page. Is this ethical? More importantly, is it important to make students aware of what their rights are and how they might protect them?

  4. I heard about a school district where a digital camera was found at school. In order to identify the owner of the camera, the administrator(s) looked at the pictures. The pictures revealed underage drinking. Should the students be punished according to the conduct policy based on this “evidence”?

    • Matt–
      Because the camera was found on school property and because it revealed illegal behavior, I think the appropriate response would be different….? Hmm……

  5. I don’t know if they’re connected or not, but here are my thoughts….assuming Facebook was not blocked at school, how is a digital image on a camera different from a digital image on Facebook? This would mean both images were “found” at school. I realize it’s a stretch…

    Facebook or not, both images reveal students breaking good conduct. Does it matter where this physically happens…at school? at a party?

    You’re making me think too hard for a Monday! 🙂

  6. These are all great comments and this is a truly huge question to be wrestled with as technology really takes hold.

    As for the camera…This is an issue of safety and legality. As educators are we not bound to protecting children? The safety issue is huge, and schools typically have ways of dealing with this both in a punitive and helping manner. It is not so dissimilar from the football players being held accountable for drinking at a friends house on a Saturday night. If location makes a difference then this behavior is now acceptable, right? Schools should represent the pinnacle of ethics and morality, and serve the greater good. An administrator still need to confront the issue, and deal with the matter on the camera, anything less is simply wrong (I have a strong opinion on this, sorry)

    As for MySpace, and Facebook, again there needs to be some accountability. The key word is some. Are the comments damaging the teacher somehow professionally? Liable and slander could apply here.

    I need to think some and will post the end of my comment

    • Yeah, I absolutely agree with you, Joe….there are instances where the school is obligated to act in order to protect students. But if students are merely criticizing a teacher fairly within a protected space….well, I think things get stickier. Mike mentioned Rate My Teacher when we were batting this around on Saturday–it came to mind for many of us, I think. Do kids have a right to fairly criticize their teachers? Is it a violation of their rights to punish them for expressing their opinions? And if districts are engaging in comprehensive monitoring of FB pages without just cause…I guess that leaves me with a lot of questions. I was grateful to see the response on Edjurist, and my SIL really pushed my own thinking around it all quite a bit. She suggested that kids are going to be less likely to protect their own civil liberties because they are accustomed to being “out there” in ways our generation isn’t. Interesting to think about…..

  7. I think kids as well as adults need to realize that not everything needs to be posted on line, and it is at times, inappropriate to post every thought about every topic on line. It seems like people that blog, twitter and everything else need to spend more time with real humans and their families instead of blogging and twittering at 5AM in the morning. For crying out loud– there are people with real problems in the world.

    • Hi Joe–
      I would agree that if people are posting “every thought about every topic” online, some call for work/internet/life balance is in order : ) That said, I think it’s difficult to universally categorize those who use these tools, as people tend to do so for different purposes and in vastly different ways. Many do so in an effort to address the real problems of this world and make tremendous strides in doing so as a result. We’re all connected to “real humans” online–sometimes I wonder if those who get themselves into sticky situations truly realize this. We all have a responsibility for perpetuating ethical use and ensuring that our web presence is one that contributes to the greater good. I question whether or not policing student Facebook profiles supports that understanding, and if certain aspects of this process are indeed a violation of civil liberties. Thinking this might qualify as a potentially very “real problem”….would love your thoughts about the question raised. Thanks for dropping by.

  8. Comment II

    After a long pause I think I can finish the comment.

    We as schools should not be searching MySpace, or Facebook accounts to find inappropriate comment unless:
    1. We are informed that damaging comments are being made, and we need to investigate. There are two sides to this. The first being the false accusations that could end a carrier, and the second being framed around “what if the accustations are true and pose a danger to children”.
    2. The comments are creating an undo amount of disruption inside of the school. This is likened to the idea that if two kids fight on a Saturday in the park, a school has no real ability to discipline the students so long as it does not disrupt the educational environment come Monday.

    I can tell you from experience that people look at social media for problems, the idea that some things are “private” does not remove the need for using some sense in writing comments.

    All in all I agree that schools can be over the top in how they approach this new wave of social technology. We fear what we cannot control or understand.

    We need people in power (Administration and School Boards) to understand the technology and write policy that protects all of the rights-free speech, individuality and from slander-so that students and schools can use the technology. We are also responsible for teaching children what is right and wrong to say on line, and how to deal with issues.

  9. I know I’m a little late, but I want to add my two cents. I think that just becuase a school can’t punish a student, doesn’t mean they can’t take action. If they search another student’s profile and find a picture of my child engaging in risky behavior, I want to know. I don’t think there is a right to privace on those sites because the are not private unless made so by the user. This goes along with teaching kids how to use social sites safely.

    As far as critisizing teachers, if it is only critisism (whether deserved or not) then student have a right to it. If a kids thinks my class sucks, then he thinks my class sucks. Telling him he can’t say that only proves it true. However, if a student is making false acusations, then it aides a school to know about them sooner before it gets out of control. And yes, punishment may be in order depending on the type of comment.

    • @hrmason Not late–I’m still thinking about this, and you make a good point–I’d want to know if my child were doing something risky as well. I’m sure this is why schools might begin skimming profiles to begin with. If privacy settings are not on, then I would assume there was no desire for privacy to begin with. But when they are on and the comments are harmless ones? I dunno….and surfing profiles as a general rule versus being provoked by some concern or red flag? I can’t help but feel practices like that have less to do with protecting kids than they do with controlling them.

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