By Matthew Shanbom, Editor-in-Chief
All students were required on Sept. 8 to turn on their cameras upon request of the teacher and will be required to use a default background effect in Microsoft Teams including blur.
While this article is not going to go into specific events that may have led to this rule being created, it is going to analyze the bases on which these rules were created and whether the rule is warranted.
Let’s start with part one of the rule, “Students are to turn their cameras on at the request of their teachers.” This is supported by district guidelines on e-learning etiquette which confirm that students must use their cameras as directed by teachers.
The second part is the more controversial: “(Students are to) use a Teams background during instruction.”
According to Assistant Principal Lisa Spencer, the reasoning for this part of the rule was to “protect privacy and reduce distractions.”
Student privacy is very important and must be maintained. Students’ Fourth Amendment rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures” are not the same during school as outside it, as shown in New Jersey v. T.L.O (1985).
Based on the ruling of this case, school administration can execute discretion in conducting “warrantless searches of students under their authority.” With that being said, why would privacy suddenly be a main concern for schools?
The main case that protects students’ privacy is Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) which, while it protected privacy, severely hampered students’ rights to expression in school sponsored activities. This leads me to believe that the main reason for the change is “reduce distraction,” not “protect privacy.”
Notice the word “distraction” was used rather than “disruption.” According to the Google Dictionary, distractions “prevent someone from giving their full attention to someone else” while a disruption causes an “interruption to an event or process.”
Based on my analysis of this, a disruption is more severe than a distraction. The reason why the word disruption is so important comes from Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). The Tinker case states student expression can be limited when there is a “substantial disruption or material interference with school activities.”
While the Tinker test has been substantially changed by later cases, the language of a substantial disruption continues to be used, including multiple times in the Broward Schools code of conduct: “an incident which results in the temporary suspension of the educational process due to a school evacuation or interference with learning activities/educational process.”
Once this information is taken into account, the next question is whether a student’s background can be considered a form of expression. While schools can regulate dress code based on Pugsley v. Sellmeyer (1923) and Ferrell v. Dallas Independent School District (1968), the later and supreme ruling of Tinker stated that the direct expression in this case is a form of “pure speech” differentiating it from a dress code.
If what a student chooses to wear is a protected form of expression, why is live background during a Teams meeting not a protected form of expression?
Let’s say a student painted their wall behind them with a design that does not violate any school guidelines, which include a ban on gang symbols or hate speech. This distinction is based on Bethel v. Fraser (1986) which states a student’s right to expression can be limited due to lewd or vulgar language. Additionally, in Morse v. Frederick (2007), encouraging the use of drugs, whether explicitly stated or not, can be limited at school sponsored events. In normal circumstances, this design would be legally protected expression by the student who created the painting. Let’s say that this student positions their camera so that the only thing in their background is this painting. Does this painting still count as a form of expression? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, only different people’s opinions. To explore the first possibility that a background is not a form of expression and is rather just a wall. It’s possible, even perhaps likely, that most students have not thought about what appears in their background. This differentiates it from clothing which a student puts on knowingly in the morning. The counter argument is that everything a person does has some thought put into it making it a form of expression. At some point every object in a person’s room was placed there with thought at some point.
If it were determined that yes, a student’s background is a form of expression, the same rules as any other form of student expression would have to be followed.
The main idea of whether the school can require a student to use a Teams background is up to interpretation just as many other free speech cases in schools are. Based on my interpretation of the cases, no, a school can’t require a student to use a Teams background. Just as many other rules at schools, these rules apply solely to students and not teachers. Teachers are only required to turn their cameras on when having direct interaction with students and are never required to use a Teams background like students.You might disagree with me, and that’s your right. In fact, I want to hear from you. Tornado Times remains a public forum for student expression, and we accept letters to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. You don’t have to “blur” your opinion for our sake.