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Lodi Unified School District’s social media policy: Well-intentioned — but also flawed

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Posted: Saturday, August 10, 2013 12:00 am

Lodi Unified School District trustees took some pretty sharp jabs this week because of the district’s social media policy, aimed at thwarting online bullying.

Critics, including students and parents, contended that the policy is unfair, unclear and illegal.

It seems to us they’ve raised strong points.

Lodi Unified School District social networking guidelines (PDF)

Lodi Unified School District social networking offenses (PDF)

So we concur with trustees Bonnie Cassel and George Neely, who said the policy should be revisited and revised, with the help of students and others who find fault with it.

In fact, we suggest the policy be rescinded until it can be properly recast. We agree with those who maintain the policy is poorly written and would likely be struck down in a court.

But let’s begin by acknowledging the worthy intentions of the trustees and district administrators. What’s the old phrase? No good deed goes unpunished?

Well, the trustees surely thought they were doing a good deed by passing the policy, which imposes sanctions on students who bully and abuse others online. It is hard to quarrel with their goal: reduce bullying, set a more civil standard for online discourse, and avert, god forbid, a bullying victim hurting themselves, as has been the tragic case in other communities.

So it is laudable that the district is trying to set a tone against bullying at the very top. And it is true that the policy was hammered out in public session, with nary a squeak of protest. (We offer our own mea culpa; we should have been more alert to this venture much earlier.)

While the intention was above reproach, though, the resulting policy does not deserve a passing grade.

It applies only to students involved in extracurricular activities, who must agree to its provisions or not participate. District officials say the general anti-harassment policy covers other students.

That seems odd. Why are student athletes and others burdened with these limits? And if all students are potential bullies, shouldn’t an anti-bullying policy apply equally?

The document itself is larded with jargon and legalistic references. It is not clear and concise. Hardly an example of exceptional composition.

For example, the policy forbids “general inappropriate language of a profane or sexual nature.”

If a student writes on his Facebook page that his team will “beat the crap out of our next opponent” is that grounds for being suspended from his team?

Consider another provision forbidding “demeaning statements about or threats to any third party.”

So a student who writes critically of the guacamole at a Lodi restaurant won’t be able to play volleyball?

For students to abide by these social media rules, they need to understand them.

The document’s lack of clarity was also cited by an attorney we spoke to this week who pored over the policy and deemed it legally wobbly because it is, he said, entirely too general.

After all, he pointed out, the Constitution grants citizens — including those under 18 — the right to express themselves.

To abridge those rights, he said, takes careful use of a scalpel, not slashes with a butter knife.

So while the district was well-intentioned in developing a policy, officials did not seem to scrupulously weigh students’ legal rights to speak out in all the immature, critical, wacky and quirky ways young people speak out.

One thing lacking: The district doesn’t have specific records tracking and reflecting incidents of bullying in recent years. That would help reveal the problem, lead toward greater specificity in a policy dealing with it — and greater legal weight in defending it.

Lodi Unified is hardly the only organization floundering here. Some corporations which have adopted social media policies have been slapped back by courts, which have held the policies are too broad. A number of companies have retreated entirely, saying the legal and ethical ground in this cyber-frontier is just too mushy.

It seems district officials, holding high the banner of a fine cause, stepped into a swamp they didn’t realize was there. We admire the trustees for taking a leadership role here. We also applaud them for sensing when to come out of the swamp and look for a different route.

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