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The expulsion of three eighth-grade girls for Facebook posts deemed threatening and “cyber-bullying” is being challenged in a lawsuit that attracted national attention and generated its own expression: “The emoticon defense.”

In announcing its federal suit, the ACLU of Indiana said the students’ First Amendment right to free speech was violated and that Griffith Public Schools in northwestern Indiana did not meet legal tests for expulsion.

“The emoticon defense” was coined after part of the basis for the suit included claims that emoticons – expressions formed by a combination of keystrokes – gave a joking context to the posts.

“The students’ Facebook comments, which took place after school on their personal electronic devices, were clearly meant to be humorous, as evidenced by their repeated use of emoticons such as ;) and abbreviations such as LOL and LMFAO, and caused no disruption at school,” the ACLU of Indiana said in a statement announcing the suit on April 25.

Rose Rose

Few cases have cited emoticons, and ACLU of Indiana attorney Gavin Rose acknowledged that the suit was bound to generate headlines. But he bristles at the “emoticon defense” label.

“I consider it to be a nice little jingle but a tremendous oversimplification of the legal issues in this case,” Rose said. Those include how far a school district may go in disciplining students for things they say or post online away from school grounds, on their own time and their own devices.

“Schools do not possess infinite reach into the private lives of their students,” the ACLU said in a statement.

The students were suspended and later expelled after parents brought copies of Facebook posts to the attention of Griffith school administrators.

According to the Times of Northwestern Indiana, the Facebook posts were viewable by about 70 people in the girls’ friends circle. The Times reported the following excerpts, sprinkled with emoticons, LOLs and the like:

Girl 2: thee only people that make me mad, are 7th graders who dont move out of thee way. & ugly people liike (name) (name) (name) (name) (name)...etc. (sic)

Girl 1: I would say kill all the ugly people at school than. But I don’t wanna die.

And later:

Girl 3: i wanna kill people.

Girl 2: ii wiish yu wouldnt get caught, cos … half thee school would be gone by now...

Girl 1: I need new best friends. All of mine are homicidal.

Despite the attention the “emoticon defense” received, the case also demonstrates the legal complications that Indiana school administrators face when parents, students or teachers report troubling online comments they consider cyber-bullying.

State law sets two tests for removing students for their conduct. A student may be suspended or expelled if his or her activity is unlawful or interferes with school purposes or functions; or if the student’s removal is necessary to restore order or protect people on school property.

Rose said Griffith officials didn’t meet those tests. The suit asks for a judicial declaration that the girls’ First Amendment rights were violated, an injunction removing the discipline from their records, and monetary damages.

Officials from Griffith Public Schools and the schools’ attorney did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Madeira Madeira

Jody Madeira is an expert on children and the law and an associate professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. She said interpreting emoticons is a dicey proposition.

Madeira said an attorney could argue “that the use of emoticons even makes it more depraved. … How can they smile and laugh about these things?”

Emoticons and online lingo are subjective, she said. “This is how people talk online,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

Madeira said a larger issue is that cyber-bullying is changing how courts rule when school discipline is challenged. The standard of upholding discipline for a student whose action disrupts school is evolving toward a standard of upholding discipline if the action disrupts any student’s educational experience, she said.

Disciplining students for Facebook posts, particularly those outside school property, has vexed school administrators, said Dave Emmert, general counsel for the Indiana School Boards Association.

He dismisses the idea that a taunt or threat can be erased when followed with an electronic wink or smiley face.

“School officials after Columbine are just so concerned about their duty of reasonable care to protect other students,” Emmert said. “If they’re going to err, they’re going to err on the side of safety.”

Emmert last year wrote an article for the School Boards Association Journal titled, “Why Can Indiana Students Bully, Cheat, and Do Other Disruptive Things on the Internet (and Get Away With It)?”

Emmert, a former teacher, said that because state code stipulates an off-campus activity must be unlawful for a student to be suspended or expelled, schools have little legal cover for expulsion over online posts, no matter how distasteful or provocative.

Emmert said parents take cyber-bullying seriously and expect school principals and superintendents to do the same. He said some parents even have turned in their own children after discovering troubling online posts.

School administrators, Emmert said, “catch hell for arguably not protecting” when a student’s bullying or threatening posts are brought to the school’s attention.

State law requires all school districts to have bullying policies, including for school-owned computers and electronic devices, but the law is mute on what constitutes “cyber-bullying.”

Emmert’s article got the attention of Indiana Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, who last year authored House Bill 1169 that sought to remove “unlawful” from the Indiana Code as a criterion for disciplining students. Emmert and Koch said the bill would have given schools greater discretion to remove students for cyber-bullying.

Koch’s bill passed the House but not the Senate. It will be discussed as part of a summer study committee on education reform.

Koch said he’s heard from school administrators who feel handcuffed in disciplining students for their social media posts.

“They are seeking flexibility but also legal certainty,” Koch said. “And I think that legal certainty is also deserved by the students who are subject to these rules.”

Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said he believes if someone is targeted by bullying posts, it doesn’t matter if a smiley face follows.

“The argument being made that I didn’t really buy is that because the threat included LOL or emoticons, it makes it OK,” Patchin said.

But could an emoticon turn a case?

In a 2009 Nebraska case, a man found guilty of use of a computer to entice a child or a peace officer believed to be a child for sexual purposes appealed his conviction and cited an emoticon in his defense. The man had been convicted of making online sexual advances to someone he believed to be a 15-year-old girl.

An officer who had posed as the teen used an emoticon expressing anger after the man initially declined to arrange a meeting. The man claimed entrapment. The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the man’s conviction.

In the Griffith case, emoticons are just a part of the tone of the online chatter. Another is how teens communicate.

“It was innocent from our point of view – the kind of conversation that 13- to 14-year-olds have been having forever,” Rose said. “The only difference being, this was out there for the world to see.”

Emmert recalled teaching high school before social media, cyber-bullying and emoticons. Teens said and did outrageous things then, too, he said.

“They don’t know what the heck they’re doing,” Emmert said.

The ACLU suit is S.M., et al. v. Griffith Public Schools, No. 2:12-CV-160, in the Hammond Division of the Northern District of Indiana.•
 

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  1. Ah yes... Echoes of 1963 as a ghostly George Wallace makes his stand at the Schoolhouse door. We now know about the stand of personal belief over service to all constituents at the Carter County Clerk door. The results are the same, bigotry unable to follow the directions of the courts and the courts win. Interesting to watch the personal belief take a back seat rather than resign from a perception of local power to make the statement.

  2. An oath of office, does it override the conscience? That is the defense of overall soldier who violates higher laws, isnt it? "I was just following orders" and "I swore an oath of loyalty to der Fuhrer" etc. So this is an interesting case of swearing a false oath and then knowing that it was wrong and doing the right thing. Maybe they should chop her head off too like the "king's good servant-- but God's first" like St Thomas More. ...... We wont hold our breath waiting for the aclu or other "civil liberterians" to come to her defense since they are all arrayed on the gay side, to a man or should I say to a man and womyn?

  3. Perhaps we should also convene a panel of independent anthropological experts to study the issues surrounding this little-known branch of human sacrifice?

  4. I'm going to court the beginning of Oct. 2015 to establish visitation and request my daughters visits while she is in jail. I raised my grandchild for the first two and half years. She was born out of wedlock and the father and his adopted mother wantwd her aborted, they went as far as sueing my daughter for abortion money back 5mo. After my grandchild was born. Now because of depression and drug abuse my daughter lost custody 2 and a half years ago. Everyting went wrong in court when i went for custody my lawyer was thrown out and a replacment could only stay 45 min. The judge would not allow a postponement. So the father won. Now he is aleinating me and my daughter. No matter the amount of time spent getting help for my daughter and her doing better he runs her in the ground to the point of suicide because he wants her to be in a relationship with him. It is a sick game of using my grandchild as a pawn to make my daughter suffer for not wanting to be with him. I became the intervener in the case when my daughter first got into trouble. Because of this they gave me her visitation. Im hoping to get it again there is questions of abuse on his part and I want to make sure my grandchild is doing alright. I really dont understand how the parents have rights to walk in and do whatever they want when the refuse to stand up and raise the child at first . Why should it take two and a half years to decide you want to raise your child.The father used me so he could finish college get a job and stop paying support by getting custody. Support he was paying my daughter that I never saw.

  5. Pence said when he ordered the investigation that Indiana residents should be troubled by the allegations after the video went viral. Planned Parenthood has asked the government s top health scientists at the National Institutes of Health to convene a panel of independent experts to study the issues surrounding the little-known branch of medicine.

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