“It seems a rather disproportionate response by educators to something that, at most, I would characterize as teenage hijinks,” Bertin said.
All technology shifts that give individuals a larger audience — from the printing press on, Bertin said — tend to make authority figures uncomfortable. More student censorship issues have emerged as young people gain more access to outlets for expression, such as the ability to post videos to YouTube, publish their thoughts on personal blogs and spread ideas through social media such as Facebook.
“We do see more of these situations and they will probably continue to increase until clearer legal rules emerge,” Bertin said.
Schools, for example, have suspended students and teachers because of material posted on their social media accounts, even when the activities took place outside of school hours and off school property.
“With more forms of expression, there are more reasons to engage in censorship if the people in charge are uncomfortable with forms of expression that younger generations are using,” she said.
Educators have struggled with their role in policing online behavior, particularly when it comes to issues such as cyberbullying and general online safety as students move behavior that once could have been regulated in the hallways to the digital world.
In cases where someone feels threatened or which cross over into criminal conduct, Bertin said, schools should refer cases to local authorities. But short of that, she said, her organization believes that other measures — such as asking a student to write an essay, or to clean a classroom — are better than what she called the “almost nuclear” option of suspension.
And the reaction to the Harlem Shake videos, she said, were out of line by any measure.
“If it upset people for legitimate reasons — and no one claimed they were coerced into participating, that they felt embarrassed or that they were in any way intimidated by the situation — but if it affected the school environment, then there might be a legitimate reason for the school to call the kids together and say, ‘You did this and it caused some of your fellow students to feel deeply uncomfortable,’ ” she said.
The best option, she thinks, would have been for schools to ignore the videos altogether.
“We are very strongly in the camp of telling schools that this is protected speech. Even if it’s unpleasant, we do protect that kind of speech in this country and should, as much for students as adults,” she said.