When he read the news accounts about what happened to a Burlington student who voiced her discontent with school administrators on her personal blog and was barred from serving as class secretary, Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, thought “what they did to that young girl was wrong.”
LeBeau, a retired public school teacher, said in a phone interview earlier this week that he has proposed a bill which he hopes will create a “bright line” when it comes to students’ free speech rights in the Internet age.
LeBeau’s bill prohibits school officials from “punishing students for the content of electronic correspondence transmitted outside of school facilities or with school equipment, provided such content is not a threat to students, personnel or the school.”
LeBeau, who has not spoken with the student, Avery Doninger, or her attorney Jon Schoenhorn about the bill, said his feelings about the situation may have been different if she typed the blog entry in the school library or on a school computer, emailed it directly to the principal, or intended to disrupt the school environment.
LeBeau said he wrote the bill before US District Court Judge Mark Kravitz ruled on the case in favor of Burlington school officials more than a week ago.
In his ruling Kravitz noted that times have changed since 1979 when Thomas v. Board of Education set boundaries for school officials regulating off-campus speech.
“Today, students are connected to each other through email, instant messaging, blogs, social networking sites, and text messages,” Kravitz wrote. “Off-campus speech can become on-campus speech with the click of a mouse.”
Kravitz concluded that the Burlington school administrators were within their rights to punish Doninger because “If courts and legal scholars cannot discern the contours of First Amendment protections for student internet speech, then it is certainly unreasonable to expect school administrators, such as Defendants, to predict where the line between on- and off-campus speech will be drawn in this new digital era.”
“It was clear to me that the law was gray in this area,” LeBeau said.
LeBeau’s bill has been referred to the Education Committee.