The Changing World of Student Expression: A Legal Analysis of Online Student Speech Issues

Open Access
Quigley, Kaitlin Angelina
Graduate Program:
Higher Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
August 18, 2017
Committee Members:
  • David S Guthrie, Dissertation Advisor
  • David S Guthrie, Committee Chair
  • John Jesse Cheslock, Committee Member
  • Karen Paulson, Committee Member
  • Kyle Peck, Outside Member
  • Free speech
  • First Amendment
  • Cyber-bullying
  • higher education
  • free expression
  • legal
  • legal analysis
  • online speech
  • online education
  • academic freedom
The internet plays an increasingly important role in the lives of contemporary college students. Use of social media and other forms of electronic communication have fundamentally changed the ways in which students interact with others. Often, students’ online speech can lead to disciplinary action against them. This study considers the current state of the law as it relates to college student online speech. Specifically, it explores how courts interpret students’ First Amendment rights in online context both within and outside of instructional settings, as well as the extent to which courts rely on concepts of academic freedom in defining student speech rights in online contexts. Twenty-five federal and state court opinions from twenty-one separate cases are thoroughly examined. They are then analyzed using reasoning by analogy. The results reveal five major themes. First, several sources of law shape the contours of student online speech rights. Second, clear policy language and consistent adherence to policies is essential to treating students fairly and withstanding legal challenge. Third, courts’ treatment of student academic freedom is consistent with principles articulated by the AAUP and others. Fourth, there is uncertainty and debate related to the proper application of legal standards in assessing student online speech rights and corresponding institutional authority. Finally, institutional authority over student online speech is dependent upon the context in which the speech occurs. Given these conclusions, several implications for both theory and practice are discussed.