Principal parodies are protected speech

By Corey Friedman

Students who poke fun at their principal or skewer the superintendent through online parody pages could go to jail

Photo Illustration by Natalina/ExtraordinaryIntelligence.com

under a shortsighted state law passed last month.

North Carolina’s School Violence Prevention Act defines building a fake profile or website as cyber-bullying a school employee, a Class 2 misdemeanor. The law comes four months after a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment protects such parodies.

Since the early days of social media, critics have created fake profiles for public figures on sites like Facebook and Twitter.  Some parodies make political points while others specialize in good-natured ribbing — a fake Twitter account for Gov. Bev Perdue proclaims her love of Bojangles’ biscuits and details a planned road trip to crash the Republican National Convention.

There’s a distinct difference between parody and impersonation. Material that “could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts” is protected speech, the Supreme Court ruled in 1988. Many parody pages are clearly labeled as such, and most are too obviously outrageous to be confused with personal profiles.

Two Pennsylvania teenagers who made MySpace profiles mocking their school principals were exercising free-speech rights and could not be punished, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on March 30.

North Carolina’s law punishes speech that the First Amendment protects, and it likely would not survive a legal challenge. Will the state use taxpayer money to fight a losing battle against the Bill of Rights?

We sympathize with administrators who bristle at tasteless personal attacks. But protecting American citizens from government censorship is more important than protecting school officials from hurt feelings.

The law’s narrow scope suggests school employees should be singled out for special treatment, but it offers no justification. Why should a principal be immune to criticism when a police officer or other government worker is fair game?

It also is noteworthy that the law applies only to students, most of whom have not reached voting age. Would state lawmakers support a bill that sought to curtail their own expressive rights?

In a landmark 1967 case, the Supreme Court ruled that a school couldn’t punish Iowa high school students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Schools can limit student expression if it’s likely to cause a “substantial disruption,” the court ruled, but they cannot censor speech because of an “undifferentiated fear or apprehension.”

“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority.

North Carolina’s law reaches beyond the schoolhouse gate and into students’ home computers. This disturbs us greatly, as it overrides parents’ authority over their own children.

Locking people behind bars for criticizing government officials might be standard practice in a foreign dictatorship, but it is untenable in a thriving democracy. The Tar Heel State shouldn’t stand for it.

As is often the case when government tries to counteract dissent with censorship, the solution is more speech — not less. Schools could use parody page controversies as teachable moments. They could seek to repair the fractured relationships between students and educators that prompted the parodies.

Forced silence under threat of legal punishment doesn’t teach North Carolina’s students any lessons worth learning.

Mocking a school employee may be mean. It may be immature. It may be unwise. But it should not be a crime.

[Note: This post originally appeared in the Wilson Times.]

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One Response to Principal parodies are protected speech

  1. Glen Bradley

    Not sure which comment form you will see this in. That particular Senate Bill 526 was introduced and passed in 2009. It was not taken up in 2011 or 2012. I was in the General Assembly in 2011 and 2012, and want nothing to do with this bill, not even a vague association. :-)

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