Today, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to an article entitled “Government ‘Anti-Bullying’ Overreach Hits Facebook” that appeared on The New American. What caught my attention was that the snippet of the article that appeared on Facebook claimed that the Department of Education is demanding that schools and teachers monitor students’ Facebook conversations and threatening lawsuits if they don’t. This smelled funny to me, so I went digging around to see what I could find to either substantiate or refute the claim. It struck me as odd that at a time when public schools are overburdened and short of cash that the DoE would run around both adding to the burden and threatening to lighten the wallets of school districts even further, but then we’re talking about federal government here; just because something sounds screwy doesn’t make it untrue.
So, I clicked over to the New American article, and saw this:
What’s wrong with this picture? There’s a clear statement that the Department of Education is demanding that high school teachers monitor Facebook behavior, and a link to what I would reasonably expect be a statement, press release, or something from the Department of Education. Except that the link doesn’t go anywhere but to this article on The Blaze. Where does the New American mention The Blaze? Nowhere near the link and in fact, not until the opening of the second paragraph. The first paragraph mentions an article in The Daily Caller, but provides no link to the Daily Caller article until 6 paragraphs later, nearly halfway through the text.
So, within the first paragraph of the New American article, I wasn’t exactly sure who was saying what: the Department of Education, The Blaze, or The Daily Caller. If the article starts out saying “…the Department of Education is now demanding…” without a preceding attribution, I expect the link to go directly to a DoE source, not some arbitrary Internet post. After all, the New American article begins by claiming that the DoE is demanding something, not that some other person asserts that the DoE is demanding something. It’s one of those small things that makes a big difference.
Following the first, and presumably most important, link in the New American article, I clicked over to the article at The Blaze. The article there is titled “Big Brother? Feds Order Schools To Monitor Kids Facebook Posts & Lunchtime Chatter”. The title of this article contains new information that wasn’t present in the New American article, namely the including of the monitoring of “lunchtime chatter” (no word on whether this is somehow related to “terrorist chatter”). The Blaze article is at least clear that the original source is The Daily Caller, and in fact, appears to be just a paraphrase of it. I’d hoped for a link to something authoritative from the Department of Education, but instead, I found only a link to the Daily Caller article.
The Daily Caller article opens with:
Education Department officials are threatening school principals with lawsuits if they fail to monitor and curb students’ lunchtime chat and evening Facebook time for expressing ideas and words that are deemed by Washington special-interest groups to be harassment of some students.
After noting that there has been “muted opposition” to the threats, the article goes on to state explicitly that the “threats…are delivered in a so-called ‘Dear Colleague’ letter” and that the “letter says federal officials have reinterpreted the civil-rights laws” in regard to bully, and adds:
Under the new interpretation, principals and their schools are legally liable if they fail to curb “harassment” of students, even if it takes place outside the school, on Facebook or in private conversation among a few youths.
The author draws a direct line between the Department of Education letter, re-interpretation of civil rights laws, and liability for the actions of students’ outside schools. That’s great, but while I expected to find a link to the full text of the letter so that I could see for myself this outlandish behavior from the Department of Education, no such link was in the article. There were a couple of quotes, and the author of the letter was noted as Russlyn Ali, and the article said the letter was dated October 26.
I didn’t remember any sort of uproar occurring in October of last year. Given the uproar over the widespread wiretapping allowed by the PATRIOT Act when it came out, I figured a federal mandate requiring schools public and private to eavesdrop on the entire US student body (presumably from pre-K onward), would have been all over the news at the time. Since the author of the Daily Caller article declined to provide a link to the letter, I went looking for it and found it quickly. You can read it here, on the Department of Education’s site.
Ms. Ali’s letter essentially clarifies that some school bullying behavior may violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments, and some other federal laws including the ADA. If bullying behavior is based on ethnicity, gender, disability, or whatnot, the school may have some additional responsibilities to comply with federal civil rights laws. There’s not a single mention of social media, eavesdropping, monitoring conversations, or off-campus actions of students.
The gist of the letter seems to be that schools, when implementing anti-bullying policies, need to make sure that these policies comply with existing federal laws, and that if teachers or administrators know that bullying is taking place, or should reasonably know that it is (no, they’re not expected to be mind-readers now), the actions they take to remedy the situation may have to take federal laws into account, and several specific scenarios are given. Someone bullying a kid because of their gender, disability, or ethnicity will result in the school having to make sure that the remedy takes into account the corresponding federal laws; someone bullying a kid just because he doesn’t like the kid’s haircut doesn’t entail a remedy that has to take federal civil rights laws into account. So, essentially, Ms Ali’s letter serves as a reminder to schools that they have to comply with federal laws. It’s not much different than the sign in the bathroom that reminds you that you have to wash your hands before returning to work; that rule was already in place, but you might need a reminder.
So, where did the Daily Caller author get this screwy idea that the Department of Education was forcing schools to monitor Facebook activity, since there was no mention of this in the letter? He just lobbed that in from a recent announcement (you can read it on CNN here) that Facebook is rolling out tools, including the Facebook Safety Center, that allows people to report anti-bullying behavior to someone in their friend network: a friend, teacher, family member, or just some random person whose friend request they accepted because they had a cute picture. The move, which Facebook made on its own, was supported by the White House and garnered a photo op for the President, but was in no way mandated by the Department of Education, the White House, Congress, or anyone else. I can imagine that after the spate of news last year about cyber-bullying that Facebook and others got some calls from government representatives from both parties, but there was no legislation involved here.
The author of the Daily Caller takes two basic facts:
- Ms. Ali’s letter reminds schools that anti-bullying policies must comply with existing federal civil rights laws.
- Facebook rolls out tools to help report bullying behavior online.
and comes up with the idea that “Facebook is developing new features that will make it harder for principals to miss episodes of online “harassment,” and so will increase the likelihood of government action against the teenage users of Facebook and other social-media.” And he also claims that Ms. Ali’s letter constitutes a re-interpretation of the laws, which is just not so. Using his logic, putting the employee hand-washing reminder sign up in the bathroom is a re-interpretation of existing health laws that will increase the likelihood that the government is going to force you to take a shower before you can return to work because you’re teeming with disease, you filthy person.
Not one of the three articles I read in search of the source of this claim ever linked to the original letter by Ms. Ali or to a news article or press release explaining Facebook’s rollout of anti-bullying tools. Once the Daily Caller author cooked the whole thing up, the others just ran with it. It’s like the whisper game, only less funny.