Students can be suspended for a lot of odd reasons these days -- wearing "objectionable" T-shirts, cross-dressing for prom, planning elaborate senior pranks -- but a principal at a Catholic high school in Sparta, New Jersey, has added another offense to the list: having a blog.
The Reverend Kieran McHugh stunned the 900 students of the private Pope John XXIII Regional High School at a recent assembly when he told them that, effective immediately, they would have to dismantle their personal pages on sites such as MySpace.com and Xanga.com and any other blogs, or face suspension.
McHugh said he was taking the unusual measure to protect students from online sexual predators who may be lurking in cyberspace looking for personal information on children, including their pictures, diaries and gossip, according to a report in New Jersey's The Daily Record newspaper.
Many of the students were reportedly outraged at the school's attempt to regulate their home lives. According to the Record, a majority of them protested the new rule, arguing that it violated their free-speech rights and that the school should have no say on what they do at home.
"I don't see this as censorship," McHugh told the Record. "I believe we are teaching common civility, courtesy and respect." Popular community sites such as Xanga and MySpace got the school administration's attention when it learned that a student had communicated online with someone who lied about their identity, age and where they lived, though McHugh would not elaborate on the specifics of the case.
"If this protects one child from being near-abducted or harassed or preyed upon, I make no apologies for this stance," McHugh said. A diocese spokesperson did not return calls for further comment at press time. MySpace, which would not comment, is the fourth most viewed site on the Internet in the U.S.
Both public and private schools have made efforts in recent years to keep campus computers from accessing certain online content, but McHugh's attempt to regulate home access to social networking sites is reaching across boundaries, according to Kevin Bankston, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San-Francisco-based online civil liberties defender. Bankston said he believed the school's real motivation was to suppress negative comments about Pope John posted by students.
"If you look at the policy itself," said Bankston, "it's not preventing children from releasing personal information in a way that might be harmful to them. It's trying to restrict information related to the school and its staff on the Internet, including private communication, like e-mail. So it's a blanket ban on discussing school at all using the most common modern medium for discussion of things."
According to a copy of the school's Internet policy, included in the student handbook, while there is no prohibition on students having personal Web sites, there are rules when it comes to the school. The policy, which a source at the diocese said was five years old, says that because the Web is a "public forum with unrestricted access," the school "restricts permission for the posting of information related to the school, our staff and our students on the Internet."
It states that the posting of any information "in any format" related to the school "on any Web site, bulletin board, chat room, e-mail or other messaging system" that is deemed threatening or impugning to the character of another person is subject to disciplinary action.
According to the Record, some students had posted derogatory comments about the school in their online profiles. The paper quoted one parent, who had never heard of MySpace, praising the policy, saying that it fit with the reason she sent her kids to the private school. "They take the safety of the child into consideration first," said Mary Kaye Nardone, mother of two Pope John students.
A constitutional law expert told the Record that a case could be made that the school added the new restriction after families had already signed a contract with the school for the year. "I think it's a bad idea and I think it's probably illegal -- I think the students have some rights," said Rutgers University Professor Frank Askin, director of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic. Askin said he was not aware of any similar case, but added that there is no clear First Amendment violation because the school is a private, not government, entity.
So far, no student has been suspended as a result of the ban, and McHugh said he believes the majority of them have complied with the order.