It’s been a rough few weeks for Pennsylvania's Plum Borough School District.
Two Plum Senior High School teachers were arrested for allegedly having sex with students. Then a third teacher was charged with witness intimidation after he pointed to one of the alleged victims in front of his class, revealing her identity to her peers and using class time to criticize her for speaking out.
Then things took another strange turn. Students were treated to three separate assemblies where police warned them that commenting via social media about the cases could result in criminal charges. As Plum Borough Chief of Police Jeff Armstrong reportedly told the students, “When you use those devices to make derogatory or irresponsible or immature or detrimental remarks about the victims or witnesses involved in these investigations, you’ve committed a crime, and it will be treated as such.”
“I have the tweets on my phone in my pocket right now from students in this school,” Armstrong warned, “and I can assure you that I can know whose accounts these are before you guys finish eating lunch today.”
According to one account, law enforcement organized the assemblies to "prevent further witness intimidation, but many students and their parents took it as a threat."
Indeed they did. The "watch what you tweet" assemblies resulted in student outrage and protest. Students stood outside Plum High with signs and duct tape over their mouths. Some spoke with local media and even reached out to the ACLU of Pennsylvania for assistance.
That pressure forced Plum Borough School District, outside Pittsburgh, to issue a clarification, stating in a letter that the district "will not take actions that infringe upon the First Amendment rights of its students or staff with respect to their use of social media." The letter essentially recanted any insinuation that students' free expression rights being taken away.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania accepted the school district's clarification, pointing out that:
Students should know that so long as they don’t disrupt classes or create a significant and material disruption in the school, they have the right to talk about the ongoing investigation, which is a matter of public concern.
Sometimes the first step in combating censorship is speaking out for your right to speak out.