Jack Kerouac called it “the dirty word that comes out clean.” A popular clothing brand plays off of its spelling for branding purposes. Music artists from Britney Spears to the Black Eyed Peas to Van Halen have referenced it in their song names and album titles. It’s a word we all know, have often heard and have probably said — and recently, it’s the word that got a high school senior from Indiana expelled just three months before his graduation.
Austin Carroll was kicked out of Garrett High School after tweeting, from his home computer at approximately 2:30 a.m., “f*** is one of those f***ing words you can f***ing put anywhere in a f***ing sentence and it still f***ing make[s] sense.” The school originally claimed that their system showed the tweet as coming from a campus IP address; furthermore, the school’s principal stated that the administration makes a policy of following students’ Twitter feeds.
The question of exactly how the right to personal privacy applies to online content and social networks is a complex one, further complicated by the fact that there is little to no legal precedent for cases concerning much of the technology involved. But to me, this seems like a straightforward issue — and one with fairly recent connections to the Supreme Court of the United States.
A brief history lesson: In 1965, three students in Iowa were suspended after wearing black armbands to their respective schools as a form of protest against the Vietnam War. Seeing this as an attack on their First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the students joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and took their case to the nation’s highest court in 1968. Tinker vs. Des Moines was decided 7-2 in favor of the students, with the majority opinion famously stating that, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Carroll’s defense, it seems, is even more clear-cut than that of the Tinker students. This case is not one of whether students possess rights inside the school building; it’s more a question of how much authority the schools can claim to possess off campus grounds.
Did Carroll do anything that disrupted school activities? No. Would the school have even known about Carroll’s tweet if they had not made a practice of following student accounts? Probably not (though for the record, the school claims that logging into personal accounts on school computers can catch the attention of their system).
Personally, I don’t like swearing. I was raised to think of it as something that demonstrated a lack of both self control and vocabulary. But as stupid as I may think Carroll’s tweet is, I don’t think it is the stuff of expulsion — and I don’t believe that it’s any of his school’s business at all.