The balancing of the unrestricted expression of opinion against the promotion of a tolerant public will put the fundamental freedoms that we value in our democratic society to the test, says Prof
This article, written by Dino Sossi, University of Toronto, originally appeared on The Conversation and was republished here with permission:
Professors are vehemently committed to freedom of expression. Many believe that unfiltered, even offensive, utterances are fundamental to post-secondary academic life. But what about their students? Should social media contributions by students be punishable even if they are made off-campus?
This emerging problem in the constant battle for free expression speaks to the dangers of ubiquitous devices, ubiquitous WiFi, and instant communication. Given the potential impact of Bill C-10 on online Canadian language, such as the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which may regulate content we see on social media, it is important to contour the online -Expression to define.
This problem is also related to the rapidly changing demographics at Canadian post-secondary institutions. Namely, the difficulty of judging different speech from even more different students.
Racist students make up 40 percent of undergraduate and graduate students at Canadian universities. Weighing the freedom of expression through dynamic technologies against the promotion of a tolerant public will test the fundamental freedoms we cherish in our democratic society.
The case of a pharmacy student
Kimberly Diei is a PhD student at the University of Tennessee and is studying at the School of Pharmacy. Earlier this year, the university received anonymous complaints about its social media activities – 17+ Instagram posts and tweets (all created under a pseudonym) – including rap lyrics it wrote based on Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s hit song WAP .
The administrators of the University of Tennessee later expelled them for “raw” and “vulgar” positions. Diei appealed and her expulsion was reversed. She then filed a lawsuit alleging the University of Tennessee had violated its freedom of expression without valid educational purposes.
The evolving online communication practices raise important questions:
- What are the limits of student speech?
- How should institutions rate burning social media posts?
- Can we prevent problems similar to those with Diei from occurring again?
Tinker tailors speech: the malfunction test
Tinker v. Des Moines remains the iconic case of student expression. The case concerned young activists who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Administrators deported the students until they removed this “obnoxious” clothing. The students resisted.
In response, US Supreme Court Justice Abraham Fortas wrote that students “do not give up their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school gate,” which guarantees the constitutional protection of student speech in America.
The Tinker standard became the norm. The expression was protected as long as it did not interfere with education.
Later cases refined Tinker’s comprehensive voice protection. Bethel banned sexually vulgar expressions during a school meeting. Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier gave a school editorial control over sponsored activities such as school newspapers. Morse v. Frederick allowed a school to restrict speech promoting drug use. In the Mahanoy Area School District v. BL is about a cheerleader who was suspended for posting expletives on Snapchat (she had expressed frustration at not getting into her high school cheerleading squad). This case is currently being decided by the US Supreme Court. Significant disruptions remain the standard.
Canada does not have any formal jurisdiction to conform to Tinker, so rules for student expression online vary based on campus guidelines. For example, the University of Toronto Mississauga suggests that faculty, staff, and students who post to institutional accounts use the Golden Rule to manage their posts, along with other prudent recommendations.
Although Diei’s dilemma was not resolved in the process, the University of Tennessee administrators applied the Tinker standard. Anonymous student complaints show that she has unsettled members of her learning community. However, Diei’s postings did not seem to meet the existing disturbance thresholds in order to rightly limit her speech. This seems appropriate given the broad nature of daily online discourse.
“Freedom of thought, belief, expression and expression” are enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, subject to “reasonable limits”. As such, Canadian post-secondary institutions could follow Tinker’s disorder standard to assess whether student speech should be appropriately restricted.
Despite their justification, Diei’s struggles speak for a different topic. The role of post-secondary institutions in overseeing student communication.
Changing means of communication – online identity exploration
Many people support the opening of academic spaces to new people. However, publicly available digital communications are emerging as a new source of tension.
Academic spaces are used to allow a relatively limited amount of private expression, such as traditional face-to-face interactions in classrooms. Now they are trying to keep up with a much higher amount of online language that is taking place in more and more virtual spaces via social media platforms.
In short, slow post-secondary institutions with a long history in the physical world struggle to respond to incredibly fast-paced social media posts from students in the virtual world. And the university’s faculty may not realize that these online spaces are fundamental to exploring the identity of young people who may inadvertently violate the institution’s inflexible communication norms.
Diei’s difficulties speak to the need for these formal places to respond to changing technological mores. You should also welcome new forms of informal expression that run counter to traditional forms of communication.
Let children be children? – Understand technical language
Many professors likely believe that discussing social media is beyond the scope of the class. Why should the average lecturer spend valuable time discussing student vacancies while teaching?
Diei expressed confusion about what to express online. Younger students may be even more confused about how their expression may violate institutional communication standards.
Given the infinite memory of the Internet, we should proactively discuss online language at all levels of education. Otherwise, students could face increasing penalties as communication continues to become incoherent. Languages intermingle and social media organically creates unique new idioms that differ from traditional academic and professional language.
Youngsters need to understand how their informal expression conflicts with the professional environment they are entering. If we do not discuss how traditional communities communicate, and even question their unforgiving standards, our students could face career difficulties that may only worsen while in our educational care and beyond.
Dino Sossi, Teaching Assistant, University of Toronto
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.