Students + social media + free speech = a volatile mix


Students’ desire to express themselves freely can get them in big trouble - suspensions, expulsions, arrests and even lawsuits – because social media has blurred the lines and made student free speech even more confusing and volatile.

To help students and their teachers understand their free speech rights and limitations, Michigan State University’s College of Law launched The McLellan Online Free Speech Library. The online resource answers a range of First Amendment questions, from the seemingly innocuous “is using the design of a popular board game as a theme for homecoming copyright infringement?” to the more serious “can a school suspend students for attacking another student on social media?”

Run by MSU’s First Amendment Law Clinic, law professors and law students provide answers on these and a variety of other issues including, censorship, FOIA, libel, privacy, student press rights, student protests and self-expression.

“Though students and teachers don’t check their free speech rights at the school door, there are some limitations,” said Nancy Costello, director of MSU’s First Amendment Law Clinic, the nation’s only clinical school program focused on protecting student speech and press rights. “What is and isn’t protected by the First Amendment has become more complicated since technology has opened the door to online voices. The McLellan online library clarifies the complexity and provides answers.”

Visitors can search the website for information by topic, take quizzes to test their knowledge on related subjects or submit specific questions. Examples of questions include:

• Can I get in trouble for posting something online that’s critical about one of my teachers?

• Can I use 30 seconds of a Beyoncé song in the background of my student broadcast project?

• Can my school stop me from saying "God bless the United States" during the morning announcements?

• Can students protest school decisions on campus during school hours?

Attorney Richard McLellan, MSU College of Law trustee and MSU alumnus, donated $500,000 to create the online library to make MSU’s law resources available to students and teachers nationwide.

“My own high school experiences taught me the importance of protecting students’ First Amendment rights,” McLellan said. “I’ve always been passionate about free speech and hope this online library will give students tools to stand up against unlawful infringement.”

MSU’s First Amendment Clinic has trained 8,000 high school students in First Amendment Workshops since 2011. It has improved transparency at school board meetings, defended students facing punishment from school administrators for social media speech and protected student journalists facing censure for publishing information high school coaches believed would put their athletic program in a bad light.