ACLU cautions school officials on student use of Web, phones


COLUMBUS — The ACLU of Ohio has sent letters to school administrators throughout the state as a preemptive strike against harsh punishments and criminal charges against students for nonthreatening Internet postings and cell-phone use.

Instead, the civil-liberties group is urging school officials to consider ways to educate teens about safe and respectful use of new communications technologies and to refrain from issuing discipline when students’ actions are conducted after school and away from classrooms.

“What a student does on his or her own time in the context of speech isn’t something that the school can touch, under the First Amendment,” said Brian Laliberte, a former deputy attorney general and attorney in Columbus.

In the letters, the ACLU acknowledges schools’ authority to restrict computer, Internet and cell-phone usage on school property and during classes.

Schools also can limit student speech in school-sponsored publications, such as newspapers, and they can discipline students who disrupt school activities.

However, according to the ACLU, schools cannot discipline students for online activities or speech occurring away from school, unless those activities involve threats.

“For example, a student complaining about or making fun of a teacher on a public Web site — if it’s done on the student’s time, using a nonschool computer — may not be disciplined by the school,” according to the ACLU, citing related court decisions.

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