Rhode Island's Ban on Facebook in Schools Too Dumb to Be a Joke

You might be of the view that social media sites have revolutionized the way that people learn from each other. But if you are, you probably aren't serving in the legislature of Rhode Island.
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You might be of the view that social media sites have revolutionized the way that people communicate and changed how we learn from each other. But if you are, you probably aren't serving in the legislature of Rhode Island.

Wait, what? Really? Rhode Island?

Oh yes, really. If Rhode Island's legislature was any less connected to the modern world, you'd need a DeLorean and a ruffled collar just to visit them. If Rhode Island's legislature was any more backwards, the statehouse would be on Island Road. And they wouldn't be able to find it.

On Thursday, the Rhode Island legislature passed HB 5941, an "anti-bullying" measure that, among its other provisions, imposes a blanket ban on the use of "social networking sites" (whatever those are, post-web 2.0) on school grounds. Because as everyone knows, anyone who encounters another user on a website is immediately bullied into submission. Right?

There's so much wrong with this bill that it's hard to know where to start. What is a "social networking site," really? The bill doesn't define it. Is The Huffington Post a social networking site? Users have profiles and we communicate with each other. Has the legislature of Rhode Island really intended to block HuffPost on school grounds? Would you be horrified to learn your children are reading news and current events in school?

And even if they intended nothing more than to ban Facebook and Twitter, does it surprise anyone that the legislature has a Facebook page? (If you're one of the eight people that currently likes the legislature, I'd deeply suggest you reconsider. Especially if you like them from school, because soon you'll be an outlaw.)

Not sure that this bill is overboard yet? The bill would need Governor Lincoln D. Chafee's signature. Of course, he has a Twitter account. And of course, if he signed it, he'd be "stopping bullying" by preventing kids from reading his own words. I know you're an Independent, Governor Chafee, but would you really want to assert your independence from common sense, too?

Even if we thought traditional social networking sites were somehow more risky than other sites, which they are not; and even if we thought schools were capable of banning them from student phones, which they are not; trusting schools with a mandate and a vague grant of authority is a recipe for abuse. As the SPLC's Frank LoMonte wrote:

Leave it to the sound judgment of school disciplinarians to define "social networking site" on a case-by-case basis, you say? What judgment? Have you slept through the last 25 years of "zero-tolerance" disciplinary overkill? Given ill-defined punitive authority, we can be sure that a substantial number of schools will apply it in nonsensically literal ways to criminalize innocent behavior.

That's right, Rhode Island: the legislature wants the same kind of people spending public money defending their right to police slumber parties for penis-shaped lollipops to decide when your students should be punished for daring to use the same well-established technologies the legislature and governor are using today. What about the judgment of school administrators suggests to you they should be involved in policing Internet use?

And for that matter, what about the last century of public education suggests to you they're even capable of stopping bullying when they find it, let alone in an over-broad mandate that has virtually nothing to do with bullying like this one?

Yes, the law includes an option for schools to permit students to access social networking sites when it serves the administrator's purposes. And as Frank again points out, expect to never see it used:

While the bill lets administrators opt out of the ban, liability-averse schools -- and every school is a liability-averse school -- invariably will follow the crowd, believing that any deviation from state standards will expose them to litigation if a parent traces a child's injury to an online message posted during school.

And this is not merely a theory. We have experience with this kind of supposed exception due to the obnoxious filters federal law requires schools to install. We've seen how they use them to block content students have a right to access, like information on sexual orientation. And we've seen that students, running into the filter, just shrug and access the content at home or on their phones or laptops, making the filters serve no greater purpose than to push students to the same content that is supposedly risky, except in places where there aren't teachers to help them.

All this time I thought Seth MacFarlane was exaggerating about what Rhode Island is like. I doubt even he could come up with a plot this stupid.

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