Back in December I wrote about Rhys Morgan, the 17-year-old British skeptic-blogger who stood up to legal threats from the transcendentally nutty fake lawyer Marc Stephens. As I said then, the internet needs more people — whether 17 or 70 — like Rhys, who are willing to stand up against such censorious intimidation tactics.
But standing up is sometimes easier said than done. Legal threats — like physical threats — can have real-world consequences. Rhys is learning that this week, as online threats and complaints have led him to censor his Facebook page upon pain of suspension or expulsion from his school.
Rhys is in what we in America would call high school. In the U.K. I believe they call it Secondary School or Twentieth Form or the loo or lorry or Toad in the Hole or Spotted Dick or something. Recently Rhys saw fit to comment upon something that I discussed here — a controversy at University College of London regarding a cartoon of Mohammed and Jesus, which became embroiled in a discussion of the imagined right not to be offended. Rhys — both as a skeptic and as a supporter of free expression — changed his Facebook profile picture to the cartoon in solidarity with the UCL skeptics.
Then all hell broke loose. Rhys was deluged with demands to take the picture down, insults, and threats. His school got involved, and threatened him with expulsion or suspension — apparently upon the theory that his actions his expression may have brought the dispute into the school, and because his posting causes offense to some classmates. Rhys' critics are employing the classic categorical dodge I've written about, saying that his actions have "nothing to do with freedom of expression" — because, see, if we say it's offensive, if we say it's "hate speech," then it no longer belongs in the free speech box.
Rhys is experiencing harassment and suppression in the U.K., but his situation reflects a universal problem, and one that is at the cutting edge of First Amendment litigation in the United States. The extent to which American public schools can punish students for out-of-school speech — especially speech on the internet — is in flux. First, student free speech rights in general seem to be on the wane, declining from a high-water mark with Tinker as the Supreme Court has given school administrators more discretion to determine what speech is "disruptive" and to police "inappropriate" speech at school-related events. The Supreme Court has not yet applied this line of cases to student expression on social media or other internet venues; just today, in a move that may or may not be significant, the Court declined to review a number of Circuit cases involving off-campus internet speech, leaving the area in doubt.
Though it takes place in another country under notably different legal standards, Rhys' situation perfectly illustrates the dangers of giving schools an unrestricted and unprincipled license to police students' online speech based on their "disruptive" or "offensive" qualities. A compliant school gives Rhys' critics a perfect heckler's veto: merely by attacking, harassing, and threatening him online, even anonymously, they can convince the school that his expression is "disruptive," and therefore make his school feel justified in demanding that he change his Facebook profile to satisfy his censors. Similarly, an utterly subjective and unprincipled notion of "offense" — one that focuses on the feelings of people who voluntarily visit Rhys' Facebook page, and not on the question of whether Rhys is doing anything to interfere with students' day-to-day activities at school — allows anyone who disagrees with Rhys to demand that the school censor him by making the irrefutable claim "this offends me." Under this arrangement, students can only write online under the sufferance of their most censorious critics.
Yet as I suggested before, Rhys Morgan is precisely the sort of student that should thrill schools: engaged in important adult issues, curious, expressive, self-motivated, and involved in larger communities of ideas. Don't we want 17-year-olds thinking and writing about subjects that involve controversy? Don't we want them to engage the big ideas that historically have caused division? Or do we want them to proceed ploddingly from one standardized test to the next, concerned only with dining on the reheated and prefabricated meals that schools put before them, never dabbling in anything that might offend or cause controversy or headlines? Of course, young people who explore and learn and engage and write on their own are independent in ways that might not please people whose power depends upon them acting like junior stenographers. Could there be something about Rhys Morgan — something more than posting a cartoon depicting Mohammed — that threatens and offends modern "education professionals" even more than it angers and offends interest groups? Could part of the conflict between free speech and "disruption" be not so much about harmony on campus, but about "professionals" seeking control over the ways that students think, interact, and learn?
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