Internet penetration
College students surfing the Internet Reuters

Facebook is at the center of controversy in educational circles once more.

As high school and college students spend a good portion of their waking hours on the phenomenally popular site, the question over whether institutions can act against them on the basis of their posts therein has been debated for quite some time. This is now again the focus of discussion in student and academic circles following the case of expulsion of four nursing students in Kansas for having posted photographs of themselves posing with a human placenta, shot during a laboratory session.

Now, one of the penalized students, 22-year old Doyle Byrnes - who was in her final year at the Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas - is seeking an injunction from the court to reverse the college decision. Claiming that the photographs had been taken and posted with the knowledge and passive approval of the instructor who was present in the lab and did not issue any protests or warnings that time, the defender asserts that the posting did not violate any policy of the school. Neither do the photographs compromise the anonymity of the donor of the placenta. In fact, Byrnes says she removed the photographs later on the same day, immediately after the class instructor called her and asked her to take them off the site.

While the case goes before a Federal Judge on January 6, it is not just a question of who is favored by the ruling, but also a deeper reflection on the kind of responsibilities that come with social media usage and the impact that it could have on one's academic and professional life.

Past cases

This is not the only or first instance that students have been taken to task over their personal ruminations or indiscreet photographs on social media.

Among recent cases, in early 2010, eight students from the Luxemburg-Casco High School in Wisconsin were pulled up and disciplined after photos that showed them drinking were posted on Facebook. The Principal said that this was regarded to be in violation of the school's code of conduct. Some among the group, who were athletes, were made to miss half a season while others were required to do community service. In response to questions over whether this was actually a violation by the School of the students' privacy, the Principal said that it was, on the contrary, a reminder of the fact that nothing in social media was actually private.

Later during the same year, three members of the Grissom High School color guard were reprimanded for an allegedly obscene Facebook photograph flagged off to the School's band director. The photo showed two of the girls smiling and flipping their middle fingers at the camera, with the Grissom gymnasium in the background. The girls were barred from traveling with the band and from performing at a football game.

Half a world away in northern India, 16 students were suspended from school for posting rude comments about a woman teacher on the social networking site Facebook.

However, what distinguishes the Kansas incident from each of the other mentioned cases is that it apparently does not involve any instance of indiscipline or misconduct on the part of the student. The School, however, has clarified the stance saying, We will not tolerate such insensitivity on the part of our nursing students. We also must protect the reputations of our business partners in health care.

As the world adjusts to a new digital social reality and the line between public and private continues to get blurred, the debate over what constitutes permissible boundaries of disclosure on social media will continue to rage. It is unlikely that one would come up with an unambiguous and strict rule of law here; in fact in what may not be welcome news for schools, a former Florida high-school student recently won a settlement in her free-speech lawsuit against a principal who had suspended her for venting thus about a teacher on her Facebook page: Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I've ever met!

That being said, as new media such as Facebook look poised to become a common currency for all communication - and also a reflection of one's identity in some ways - it is perhaps essential to carefully consider the more fluid implications of any move on such platforms.