A high school basketball player in Nashville, Tennessee may be the pawn that defines free speech in the networking age if his case goes to the courts. Taylor Cummings, a 17-year-old student at Martin Luther King Magnet school, posted some derogatory and derisive messages on his facebook account after a falling out with his coaches. The school responded by first suspending, then expelling the senior 10 days later.
The posts included one that said “I’ma kill ’em all.”
Now, there have been cases where school administrations have taken action against students who post on social networking sites, and these cases have agitated free-speech advocates who contend that the first amendment protects students from these actions. The flip-side of the argument is a question: what constitutes free speech?
Courts have long held that community standards set the bar for issues of obscenity, and congress has set the standard for material covered by national security. People who break non-disclosure agreements are subject to legal action for saying or writing material that is covered by those agreements under the auspices of contract law. So, not everything we say is protected free speech.
Neither is what we write.
The written word has long been established as indelible, permanent, involatile. The words of Yul Brenner’s Pharaoh come to mind: “So let it be written, so let it be done.” Writing gives weight to what is said. It makes it seem more important and less ephemeral than the spoken word. It is tangible. It is real. It is important. It commands attention. One does not casually put into writing that which one does not truly feel. The love letter is cherished, while the significance of saying “I love you” fades after the first time it is said. There is a whole school devoted to the significance of writing in society. This significance, however, is eroded by social networking sites and texting.
Texting has the immediacy of speech. People send texts as easily as they think what to say. There is no social norm or convention for standardizing texting the same way we do for writing. Once we hit send, it is as if we uttered the phrase, never to be retracted. Since one can post to a twitter feed or facebook wall just as easily as texting, it offers even more problems. While texting generally is a one-on-one conversation, the wall or feed is akin to the jumbotron at a sports arena. What you say is out there for everyone to see. One must take care deciding what content to place in such a public venue.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first amendment is a blueprint for all the other amendments that follow. It is the headliner of the Bill Of Rights. These rights are provided to American citizens as demonstrated freedoms that we all enjoy. These rights were paid for in blood in every war this country has fought. Just because it is a right, however, does not mean we can take them for granted. We have to be responsible stewards of these rights, use them wisely; use them carefully. We cannot use them to hit others over the head with our own ideas. There needs to be polite discussion when differences are encountered in order to bridge them.
While this all seems rather academic, young mister Cummings has added one more aspect to the issue. “I’ma kill em all” is not just any old rant. Not like “Coach so-in-so is stupid,” or “I hate the coach,” or even “I wish coach was dead.” No, “I’ma kill em all” is a direct threat. It conveys a plan of action with a specified outcome. This kind of message has already been held in the courts as conveying a threat, whether spoken or written or, as in this case, facebooked.
Now, he and his mother and a civil rights attorney have all said that it was regrettable and more to the point, that Cummings didn’t mean it. It was just the ranting of a disappointed adolescent. That may be true, but it is not the same as hollering into an empty room. Once the words are written, then the message becomes deliverable. Had he just scribbled it on a piece of paper, then tore the paper into bits and trashed it, the issue would have been trashed. But he posted it the message to a public forum, where any of his friends, who may have other friends, can read it. This conveys the threat and this is where he got into trouble.
Had he said “Coach so-in-so is stupid,” or “I hate the coach,” or even “I wish coach was dead,” the school would have no actionable issue. He is expressing his opinion and doing so is covered by free speech. Conveying a specific threat is not. The school board was correct in taking action against Mr. Cummings, who should feel fortunate that they are not pressing criminal charges against him. People need to take greater responsibility with what they put online.
Perhaps this case will set a precedent so that the courts have a template to follow in future cases. More to the point, however, perhaps it will teach kids that they cannot use the internet so cavalierly as to put their innermost thoughts and feelings out into the public. It is not a private journal, it is a public forum and there are rules that need to be followed. This is not free speech, it is bought and paid for speech. Treat it as such.