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School Rules and a Twitter "Social Media Riot" or Student Free Speech?

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A graduating high school senior finished a 3-day suspension on Wednesday for creating a Twitter hashtag about a budget controversy, but the upstate New York case continues to play out in social media.

Pat Brown said he was called into the Cicero-North Syracuse High School office last week for "harassing the principal, using a mobile phone in class and disrupting the learning environment," a CNN blog reported.

Brown suggested on Twitter that the school's principal should be cut to help balance the budget. Another tweet offered up the "anime club," but Brown's #shitCNSshouldcut hashtag has, so far, only generated his suspension. Tuesday, Brown returned after the holiday to report:

Just got the official word...Pat Brown was not freed. I am still suspended until Thursday.
8:06 AM - 28 May 2013

The Internet, though, continues to watch the #FreePatBrown hashtag that friends and supporters created.

Brown's use of his cell phone was found to be a violation of the student code of conduct and "inciting a social media riot that disrupted the learning environment." Brown thought all he was doing was expressing an opinion that the school board should solve the budget crisis and not cut extra-curricular activities, such as sports.

It is noteworthy that this case is happening as we remember the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) case, which guaranteed fundamental expressive rights for students protesting the Vietnam war by wearing black arm bands. One of the students in that case, Mary Beth Tinker, is raising money to tour the country with a lawyer from the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) to educate current students about the Constitution.

In the Tinker case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate" - students "in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution." Still, free speech could be restricted, if it disrupted instruction or triggered a "material and substantial disorder."

In more recent years, the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) case pointed to defamation and privacy as reasons to censor student speech. Commentators have noted that in the 21st Century, the public appears to support restriction of student speech. School violence and post 9/11 terrorism concerns have not helped promote free speech as a student right.

Pat Brown may be restricted from tweeting while in school, but Twitter itself would be considered a public forum under the law. He should have some rights to tweet outside of school and exercise First Amendment freedom. He did so again on Wednesday, as his suspension ended:

I'm so glad out of all the classes I get to return to, my first one is pre calc!

High school seniors typically turn 18, as they prepare for adult life. This includes a right to vote, and even die for their country in military service. Pat Brown plans to go to college where he will be expected to act as an adult. High schools should be nurturing free speech rather than restricting it.

Too often, high school administrators hide behind the fear of disruption and stifle speech because they are afraid of public criticism of their policies. Students are uniquely situated to observe the inner workings of schools. We should be able to listen to their concerns.

As it stands, Pat Brown is learning a lot from the social media community supporting him on Twitter - perhaps more than he has learned from his suspension.