While looking though some of my eMail from the last century, I found that many of the same themes were raised again and again, especially regarding student use of the internet. The correspondence from Paul Rosenbaum, who serves as head of Upper School and associate headmaster for the Viewpoint School in Calabasas, Calif., reminded me that in the December 2000 Law & Ethics column, I had asked readers to describe the ethical “dilemmas, hot topics, and policy quandaries” they face in their school districts.
Paul noted that students in his Advanced Placement English class have been writing on the ethics of the MP3 revolution and that “most students seem to feel that all forms of software, and particularly compressed music files, are the open property of anyone who cares to download them. Our school has determined that a no-downloading-on-campus policy suits it best.”
Well, I agree that the “no download” policy creates a clear standard, although the school may want to explore allowing some downloads where there is an educational purpose and the downloading is accomplished under the supervision of the school librarian or another faculty member with training in copyright issues. But the policy does not address the ethical issue of teaching the students that downloading and copying or using MP3 files and software that are protected under the U.S. Copyright statutes is simply illegal.
Like shoplifting or taking your neighbor’s car for a joyride, it is (in plain English) stealing. But sometimes the labels do not have the same impact on the adolescent mind as a simple demonstration. Here is one that I find works even on the toughened minds of law students.
Divide the class roughly in half. Assign half the students to write a short essay on a topic that will require some research and effort. The other students are told they would have their turn later. Try to make sure this working group includes the students who are most outspoken advocates of the “open property” theory of internet property. When the assignments are turned in, put the papers in a stack on your classroom desk. Then, have the students who did not work on the assignment come up to the front and each take one of the papers. Tell them to cross out the author’s name and substitute their own name on the assignment and turn it back in.
When you announce that anyone who did not turn in an assignment (i.e., the students who actually did the work but had their names crossed out) will get a failing grade, I am sure that an interesting discussion will ensue. Sometimes, students have a difficult time getting their heads around a concept like “intellectual property” until it is their work, it has a value (the grade), and someone else takes it and uses it. Have the student discuss ways to remedy these unauthorized uses and make the authors whole. Let me know what happens.
Rosenbaum also asked about the “issues in reading student eMail. … How does the legality compare with opening student lockers?” This one is easy. The fancy legal phrase that applies is “no reasonable expectation of privacy.” If the student is using the school’s computers and software and either intranet or internet connection to send and receive eMail, the legal issues are virtually the same as peeking inside the student’s locker. Tell your students in advance that their school eMail accounts have the same privacy rights as their lockers and that they have no greater expectation of privacy than if they had written their eMail messages on a classroom chalkboard. If they use eMail to express private thoughts, they should realize that it can end up like passing notes in class and having their personal communications intercepted and read aloud to the class.
There is at least one not-so-small caveat about monitoring student (or faculty) eMail. If there is any misuse of eMail, such as student-on-student or (worse) faculty-on-student harassment, then some lawyer suing your school on behalf of the victim may claim that your monitoring program should have caught the illicit messages and “prevented” the harassment. Of course, not even the most thorough monitoring program can guarantee that some problems won’t slip through the cracks, but if you give notice that you are checking eMail, you better be actually doing it.
Next month, this column will look into some of the more intriguing topics raised by readers who have school web sites and school districts that are grappling with students’ personal web sites. If you think the outlandish scenarios depicted on prime-time television are the isolated imaginings of TV writers, think again. Welcome to the real world of school law and ethics in the 21st century.