Freedom of Tweet: What right do schools have to access students’ Twitter accounts?

(Graphic by Ulises Barajas)
Freedom of Tweet

I open my laptop and rapidly type in my password. I must get on Twitter. I’m frustrated about something that happened at school today, and I want to vent. 

No one besides my 90 followers will see my tweets, right?


During the past year, the SCDS high-school administration has reviewed students’ tweets on the basis of bullying and negative language toward the community.

But Patricia Jacobsen, dean of student life, said that she has never looked at any student’s Twitter account without being approached by a parent or student first.

For example, sophomore Annya Dahmani had her tweets examined when a parent accused her of bullying. 

“The student’s parents emailed the administration, and the administration looked through my Twitter, which was on public,” she said.

Later that evening, Dahmani received a text from Jacobsen, asking if she had been bullying this student, to which she responded “no.” 

She said the parent accused her of deleting the tweet, but Dahmani said that she had never posted any tweet pertaining to or alluding to that student.

The next day she was asked to meet with Tucker Foehl, assistant head of school, where she said she told him that she had never posted anything.

“I felt like the whole situation could have been avoided if the administration had asked me to show them my Twitter before looking at it without my permission,” she said.

“I felt targeted.”

Since then, Dahmani has set her Twitter on “private,” so that the only people who can see her tweets are people she’s approved to follow her. This also prevents followers from retweeting any posts.

Another student said she felt forced to set her Twitter on private because students had told her that teachers were talking about her tweets.

“After I heard that teachers were talking about my tweets, I posted something critical of teachers for talking about the personal lives of their students,” she said.

“Then the administration called me out on my tweet.”

Although her Twitter was still on public at the time, she said she didn’t  believe that the teachers were looking at her account. 

Instead she thought that students were showing teachers her tweets. She then blocked everyone who she thought was close to a teacher. 

“Those people got mad at me for it, but it’s my social media and my privacy,” she said.

“I can control who looks at it.”

Neither of these students was given a detention or punished any other way. 

But if they had been punished, this would have gone against state law for both public and private schools. 

Frank LoMonte, executive director at the Student Press Law Center, cites the Leonard Law, passed in 1992 and amended in 2006, which protects California private-school students from being subjected to disciplinary action for speech that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment.

The law states that “a student shall have the same right to exercise his or her right to free speech on campus as he or she enjoys when off campus.”

In one case, a senior was asked by Jacobsen to take down a tweet that criticized a school dance and dancing styles. 

Jacobsen said that she didn’t force him to take down the tweet and has never forced any student to take down a tweet. 

Instead, she said, she requested that he remove the tweet and explained her reasoning.

“I told him that his tweet could be hurtful to his classmates, who put a lot of time and effort into planning the dance,” she said.

Although the senior wasn’t punished for the tweet, he said that he felt he would be punished if he didn’t take down the tweet.

He said that he felt that this request was an invasion of his rights of free speech, but he did eventually delete the tweet. 

According to Brooke Wells, head of high school, the administration views each situation on a case-by-case basis.

“If something hurts or impacts the school, we have the right to take action,” he said.

He then cited the student handbook, which all students must sign before they attend the school. 

The handbook, under the technology respectable use policy, states, “The school may intervene if off-campus use of technology impacts the school in a negative way. Students will be held responsible for how they represent themselves and the school on the Internet.

“Students understand that SCDS administrators will deem what conduct is inappropriate, if such conduct is not specified in this agreement. Any inappropriate use of technology may result in disciplinary action.”

Wells said that these policies apply to both school-owned and personal devices.

According to LoMonte, these policies are legal if the student is using school-owned technology, but may infringe on privacy and freedom of expression because these policies also control the use of personal technology.

LoMonte also said the use of the words “negative” and “inappropriate” in the policy is problematic.  

“It’s too vague and doesn’t give students fair notice of what is and isn’t allowed,” he said.

LoMonte said that SCDS is asking its students to sign away their First Amendment rights. 

“In the realm outside school, you can’t force someone to sign away their legally protected rights,” he said. “I’m not convinced that this contract is a legitimate agreement.

“There are certain rights that are so fundamental that you can’t waive.” 

LoMonte also said he worries about the school’s involvement in students’ lives outside of school.

“If a student were involved in an unconventional or social or political movement, it could be seen as representing the school in an unsatisfactory way,” he said.

“But because it’s their off-campus life, the school has no right policing their actions.” 

(Graphic by Ulises Barajas)
Follow The Octagon’s Twitter: @scdsoctagon.

Junior Alexa Mathisen, a Student Council officer, disagrees with LoMonte’s stance. 

She said that each student is representing the school on and off campus. 

“No matter how many times adults tell kids that what you post on the Internet will be there forever, they just don’t listen,” Mathisen said.

She said she believes that the administration has the right to address opinions if those opinions go against the public view of the school. 

“The school should explain why they’re being addressed,”  Mathisen said.

“The school needs to educate students on online conduct and what rights they have.”

But she and LoMonte agree that students shouldn’t be punished for speech that simply states a negative opinion and see the situation as a learning experience for the student.

“The administration should advise and counsel the student about online behavior even though they can’t punish the student,” LoMonte said.

Although private schools in California are protected under the Leonard Law, other private schools have had issues with administrators looking through students’ social media.

“A significant part of our dean of student’s job is to look through girls’ social media,” said Marie Ybarra, a junior at St. Francis High School.

According to Ybarra, St. Francis girls have been punished for having alcohol in their pictures.

At Country Day, Wells said this situation would merit punishment only if the student were wearing SCDS attire in the photo. Otherwise, the parents would be notified, but no disciplinary action would be taken by the school.

Although Jacobsen has never looked at a tweet without first being shown it by a student or parent, St. Francis’s dean of students does.

“The dean makes it known that she looks through our social media, but there hasn’t been pushback by the students,” Ybarra said.

The technology respectable use policy in the St. Francis handbook states, “Any use of technology that is contrary to the Mission of the school, on or off campus, will be considered a punishable offense, including but not limited to those addressed in the policy.”

Although Bentley School, a private K-12 school in the Bay Area, doesn’t have the same issues as SCDS, their handbook policies are similar.

Bentley’s handbook says, “Bentley also reserves the right to consider disciplinary action when students behave in ways that damage the reputation of the school, and, by extension, the community.”

Sarah Fields, a junior at Bentley, said that expressing opinions on social media hasn’t resulted in punishment. 

“One time a freshman posted a picture on her private Instagram of her smoking a cigar,” she said. “People took screenshots, but no one showed the teacher. If you take screenshots of someone’s private account, it’s disrespecting their privacy.”

But Mathisen said that in some circumstances, showing screenshots to teachers is fine.

“I’ve shown tweets to teachers before, but only when it’s a case of bullying,” she said. 

LoMonte said that bullying is not protected under free speech or the Leonard Law because it’s libel or threatening to a student’s safety, and that serious bullying should be dealt with by the school.

Although there is controversy around whether or not students’ free speech rights are restricted, Student Council members follow a different set of rules, written by Student Council members. 

“Student Council members sign bylaws saying that they must represent the school in a positive way,” Jacobsen said.

“It doesn’t mean that they make up things, but they’re not allowed to publicly speak badly of the school.”

Mathisen said she believes SCDS is correct in placing these restrictions on its Student Council members. 

“Student Council officers need to represent the school positively because that’s part of the job we applied for,” she said.

“We need to be a positive reflection of the student body.” 

According to Mathisen, “the administration can’t tell us what to post, but they do have the right to tell us what we can’t post. If you break those rules, then Student Council can remove you.”

However, LoMonte said that these policies are “preparing people to be citizens of North Korea.”

“They can only be considered as un-American and inconsistent with American values,” he said.

Rose Brownridge, a junior at Christian Brothers High School, experiences similar rules as a student ambassador. 

Brownridge says she is not allowed to swear and must follow a strict dress code in order to “represent the school well and conduct herself  in an appropriate manner.”

According to LoMonte, vague language such as “appropriate” in the handbooks of SCDS, St. Francis, Bentley and Christian Brothers invites “some degree of abuse of power by the administration.”

Although LoMonte said he believes the vast majority of provisions in the handbook are standard and good, he also says he thinks that “the administration needs to tighten up on language about off-campus speech or eliminate it entirely.”

“They need to have a strict boundary where punitive authority is not allowed,” he said. “Anything that is clearly not prohibited should be allowed.”

Headmaster Stephen Repsher said that he wants to make the school a safe environment from bullying while also protecting students’ freedom of speech.

“We would love to have input for the handbook from students,” Repsher said. “If they feel it needs to be refined or updated, we welcome information to be considered and added.”

—By Nicole Wolkov

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