Sunday, April 14, 2013

To Post or Not to Post

I want to take up the controversial subject of the relationship of JPII and what you post on twitter, facebook and other social media sites. I realize there are strong feelings on this, and ask that you give my remarks a fair hearing.

Four preliminary comments:

First, it’s important to remember that posting on internet sites is a public act. Even if your tweets or Facebook pages are “protected” or “private,” there is a great likelihood that if you post something that is offensive or destructive to another student or teacher in this school, that someone from within your broad array of friends will be offended by it and pass it on to others or re-tweet it or take a screen shot, or copy or paste and send to someone else.  Tweeting has become so common and popular that it’s easy to think of tweeting as an efficient way to have private text-message conversations with multiple people, except that it’s not private, right? Everything tweeted is permanently transcribed on the internet and is therefore public.

Second, it’s important to remind ourselves that when we post on the internet, be it with words, pictures or movies, that what we post could become a permanent part of the public domain, even if we have second thoughts about what we've done and decide to take it down later. In my hometown, there was a well-known case of three teenage girls from a local high school who got drunk one night at a party and allowed a boy to take a picture of them in the nude, which he then posted that same night on the internet.  When the girls sobered up the next morning, they were deeply embarrassed and demanded the boy take down the picture. He did so, but it didn’t matter--by then, the pictures had gone viral, not just in the girls’ school, but all around the city--hundreds of unknown people had downloaded onto their computers.  So in a very real way, posting something on line that is hurtful to someone else is really worse than saying it publicly, because it can take on a life of its own and be repeated, repeated and repeated in its original form to an infinite number of people. And the more controversial, the more hurtful, the greater the likelihood that it will in fact be downloaded or re-tweeted or passed on.

Third, because posting on the Internet is a public act, what we say can be destructive or hurtful to others and in some cases, ruin reputations. There’s a lot of muddled thinking about “Free speech” and “Censorship” in this country. Our country’s laws make a distinction between attacking ideas as opposed to attacking the character of others. We have great liberty for stating controversial positions on ideas—rant away!--but there is no virtually no liberty for  unfairly smearing someone’s reputation or character, defined as slander (spoken) or libel (written) by the courts.  Our courts are not suppressing free speech when they find people guilty of libel or slander; rather, they’re doing their best to protect the reputation of others, who have a right to their good game. It’s a matter of justice for those people.

And the fourth preliminary comment: Is a person speaking as an individual citizen, or as a member of a group? The courts give much wider liberty if a people are speaking purely for themselves. But if they’re identified as a member of a group or institution, the courts support the right of an institution to speak for itself, and not have unauthorized people speak on its behalf.  When an abortion doctor from Pensacola was shot by a deranged man about a decade ago, there was a Catholic priest from the diocese of Mobile who posted on his web site that the shooting met the “just war” criteria and was therefore morally OK. As you might guess, all the TV stations wanted to interview this priest, causing great embarrassment to the Catholic Church. The bishop ordered him to quit talking about it, but he refused, saying it was a matter of his free speech. The bishop then removed him from the priesthood and from his parish—in essence, firing him.  The priest tried to sue the bishop in courts, but it was thrown out, because it was pretty clear that the priest, wearing his Roman collar in the TV interviews, was in fact using his position to gain notoriety for his position (if he were not a priest, who would care what some local bubba thought?). The courts have long protected the rights of institutions to define themselves.

So let’s relate all that to being students, teachers and administrators at Pope John Paul II High School.

All of us bear responsibility for what we say or tweet or post on line if it’s an attack on someone else’s character or good name. I shouldn’t do it, teachers shouldn’t do it, and students shouldn’t do it either.  It’s contrary to the laws of our country, it’s contrary to the Christian mission of this school, and it’s just simply wrong.  And it’s extraordinarily destructive. As I’ve said before, the little jingle we learned as children “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is the complete opposite of the truth—words cut deep and wound people, and hurtful comments or pictures posted on the internet too often take on a life of their own, doing long term damage.  If I say something that destroys the reputation of others, I can be fired. If a teacher does so, he or she can be fired. If you do so, you can expect to be disciplined.

And it really doesn’t matter what we meant to say, or what our intentions were. “I didn’t mean it the way someone took it,” is not a defense.  When we speak face to face, we can nuance what we say with our tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language. But when we post text on line, it simply is what it is—and if it’s hurtful, it stings regardless of our intent. We are all accountable to each other—that’s the nature of being part of a  community.

If we speak as a representative of the school, and not just as individuals, the standard of what we can say is even higher. For example, if someone creates a twitter account called “Blue Man Group” and it’s obvious with even a casual read this is an unofficial club of JPII, then everything that is tweeted from that account represents the school. JPII, therefore, has a right to protect its reputation from being sullied by someone who doesn’t have the authority to represent it, much like the bishop had the right to ask the rogue priest to stand down.  It’s the same in any business, any governmental unit, any organization—our courts give businesses the right to handle these matters strongly. 

Sure, you can have a little fun from time to time. Two anonymous students started a blog called “ThingsJPIIStudentsLike” a couple of years ago, which poked fun at some of the amusing habits of teachers, or the ridiculously high speed bumps in the parking lot (I hate them, too), or the esoteric names we give to things  at JPII (like Societas) and stuff like that. A couple of Board members talked to me about the site,  worried, and wondered if I should try and shut it down. But I didn’t think so at the time. The writers were witty, and they wrote from the perspective as students who respected the school and the people here, even as they poked fun at me and our teachers (much like senior skit does).  I don’t think our teachers are spoilsports—they are good-natured and if teased, can give it right back. I was reading every post. But then, late in the game, someone posted a horribly mean-spirited piece on a group of students in the school, so I made a few calls, and asked the authors to shut down the site. The issue wasn’t censorship—it was slander and mean-spiritedness. 

I love technology.  Smart phones are unbelievably cool. The Internet and all that we can do on it  is wonderful, fantastic, interesting, fun.  Some of the on line, multiplayer games are amazing. Just be careful in what you post, OK? Imagine that everything you post, it’s as if you’re coming up to this stage at the end of this assembly and making a public announcement—would you say it here? If not, don’t say it, and everything will be fine.

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