Public Students and Employees
However, when acting as a public employer or educator, the government may subject current employees and grade-school students to regulations on their online speech where the content, form or context of the expression is so disruptive as to jeopardize the effective administration of the office workplace or school learning environment. Recently, courts have upheld students’ suspension for posting rap lyrics to social media that implied threats to students or teachers, finding that off-campus speech can still be disruptive, and therefore subject to disciplinary proceedings, because it is widely available online.
While these developments represent a set-back for students’ free speech rights, the guiding standard still holds that speech may be restricted only if it can be reasonably be predicted to “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” Mere “discomfort and unpleasantness” are not sufficient. As courts continue to tackle the issue of off-campus online speech, students should know that their enrollment in a public school or university does not mean they can be suspended or expelled without rigorous First Amendment safeguards.