A Pennsylvania court ruled last week that a 15-year-old high school freshman could be suspended for a Facebook post about an existing bomb threat that school administrators interpreted as another bomb threat.
The boy’s parents argued that his suspension violated his rights to free speech, noting that the school’s student handbook doesn’t cover off-campus conduct. However, the judge presiding over the case disagreed, saying that “the medium is not the issue” if the message is “problematic.”
After being sent home from school because of a bomb threat, the boy wrote on Facebook: “Plot twist, bomb isn’t found and goes off tomorrow.” His defense argued that this was a joke, but the judge said that the intent did not matter, and the school had every right to take action if they felt threatened.
“Logically, schools should be able to discipline students on account of off-campus speech they reasonably believe could cause disruption in the form of danger or violence, or fear of danger or violence, in schools,” District Judge John E. Jones III wrote. “[Especially considering] the modern reality of the Internet and social media networks on which students actively engage, whether they are on campus or off-campus.”
While the student didn’t intend to make a threat, it has been interpreted time and again by the courts that intent doesn’t matter. Instead, the legal system places an emphasis on whether the “target” of a post feels threatened. In other words, be careful what you post on Facebook — and perhaps more importantly, be careful who and what you post about.