Can schools discipline students for social media content outside of school?

On Behalf of | Nov 1, 2022 | Student Disciplinary Actions

When you think about it, social media is a powerful tool. It can connect people worldwide in a way that was never possible. But that doesn’t mean it’s without its risks. For students, social media use outside of school can have serious consequences—both inside and outside the classroom. For example, even though the First Amendment protects free speech, schools in Orlando and Tampa, Florida, can occasionally discipline students for social media use outside school.

When can schools discipline students for social media content outside of school?

In Orlando, students as young as 7th grade are disciplined for social media use. In Tampa, middle and high school students face punishment for online activities. While these schools may have the authority to punish students for social media use outside of school, there is no clear answer about when that discipline should occur other than when a law or policy is violated.

When determining whether or not to discipline a student for social media use, it is vital to consider the severity of the offense and whether or not it violates the law or school policy. For example, students who post an offensive or dangerous message online may be subject to disciplinary action. On the other hand, if students use social media to communicate with friends, they may not receive any punishment.

It’s necessary to look at allegations of personal misconduct individually. Even though the First Amendment protects most speech, there are limitations. The following reasons have been deemed as not protected and actionable for schools if their students post them on social media:

  • threats and threats to the school, faculty, and students (including bullying)
  • content that could be disruptive to the school process or breaches school policy
  • promotes illegal activity
  • obscene, vulgar, racist, lewd, or offensive content

Florida teachers are mandated reporters pursuant to Florida Statutes chapter 39, this means that if a teacher is aware of any improper or startling behaviors, especially neglect, abandonment, or child abuse, they have an affirmative duty to report their suspicions. This includes conduct and content on social media if said teacher or faculty are aware of that content.

What are the legal implications of disciplining students for social media use outside school?

When disciplining students for social media use outside of school, there are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, any disciplinary action taken against a student for their social media use should be proportional to the offense’s severity. Secondly, schools must consider any applicable federal, state, and local laws when disciplining students for their social media use. Finally, schools should ensure that any disciplinary action they take is consistent with the school’s code of ethics and guidelines on student discipline.

Further answers are available

Please contact your child’s school district if you have any questions about how school officials should handle a particular case.