Lodi school district modifies its policy on students using social networks

Published: Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Last Modified: Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 - 8:33 am

The Lodi Unified School District has announced it is suspending a portion of its social networking guidelines that drew protests from high school students, who said it is a breach of their freedom of speech.

District officials said trustees will consider revising the guidelines at Tuesday's board meeting.

The district stirred controversy when it required high school athletes and club members to sign a contract vowing not to post inappropriate language or photos online.

The contract, which took effect when the new academic year began July 26, prohibits online posts, Facebook "likes" or retweets of profane or sexual material. It also prohibits demeaning statements about other people.

District trustees approved the policy at their March 5 meeting, and officials said neither parents nor students commented on it at the time. But it has since drawn strong criticism from students who say it violates their free-speech rights.

The district issued a news release Wednesday saying that it is suspending the portion that sets forth offenses and consequences.

In a six-page letter dated Monday, Thomas R. Burke, a San Francisco attorney representing the Student Press Law Center, urged the district to immediately suspend the policy.

Burke was out of the country and unavailable for comment Wednesday. But he states in the letter, "While the policy may be a well-intentioned effort to discourage bullying, it sweeps far too broadly and impermissibly has the government acting as a 24-hour-a-day censor of student speech."

The "incredibly broad categories" of prohibited speech under the policy encompass legitimate political and social criticism that is protected under the First Amendment and California's constitution, he said.

The policy, as written, "precludes students from engaging in any sort of online speech examining bullying, violence and drug or alcohol abuse – even speech condemning such conduct – without the threat of post-facto censorship by the district," Burke says in the letter.

District officials in a news release said the purpose of the policy statement on social networking was intended to inform students about the potential dangers and adverse consequences of misconduct, including bullying, that may take place via electronic social networking.

They said it also summarized types of school-related misconduct, already set forth in the Education Code, that could occur via electronic social networking and could result in student discipline.

"We will revise the statement in order to clearly communicate the original intent, which was to describe how social networking can lead to consequences at school, as allowed by current law," Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer said in a written statement. "Students should be aware that their First Amendment speech rights do not authorize them to bully other students or staff."

Officials said the public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposed policy revision during Tuesday's board meeting, which will begin at 7 p.m. at the James Areida Education Support Center, 1305 E. Vine St. in Lodi.

The revised document will be posted with the meeting agenda on the district's website, www.lodiusd.net, by 5 p.m. Friday.

Call The Bee's Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.

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