Sept 27, 2005
Schools act against students for 'flaming' teachers on blogs
By Sandra Davie and Liaw Wy-Cin
FREE speech may be the buzzword on the Internet - but libel is unacceptable everywhere.
The message has been sent out loud and clear, with five junior college students being punished for posting offensive remarks about two teachers and a vice-principal online.
The students, all girls, were made to remove the remarks from their Internet diaries, or blogs, and suspended for three days last month. Their parents were also informed.
The case is not an isolated one. Of the 31 secondary schools and junior colleges contacted, 18 said they were seeing more such incidents as the number of bloggers surges.
To Mr Wang, the case of the Naughty Student Bloggers is, in several ways, even more interesting than (gasp!) the case of the Seditious Bloggers. You see, in Mr Wang's mind, the Seditious Bloggers clearly crossed the line, as far as the content of their messages was concerned. Here, though, the young students' remarks, while no doubt annoying or hurtful to certain individuals, were not threatening and furthermore, in some instances, may well represent a justifiable opinion.
Mr Wang would be interested to know whether these schools ever take into account the idea that students ought to be allowed to have opinions. I can imagine that some students will cross the line, but imagine, for instance, a case where a student writes something like this:
"I cannot stand that Mrs Tan. She cannot even speak clearly in class. She's always mumbling to herself. And you can tell from the way she marks our essays that she's just not interested in her job. She never bothers to give any proper comments on our homework. I think that she is the worst teacher in the school. She's a real idiot."
Mr Wang can well imagine that there could be many teachers in Singapore who are like the above fictitious Mrs Tan. Furthermore Mr Wang believes that honest, brutal criticism may be the best way to make such students improve themselves. In addition, Mr Wang does not believe that teachers should expect respect from students, simply by virtue of their status as teachers. If you're not a self-respecting teacher, then you shouldn't expect students to respect you.
The question, however, is whether the school would tolerate students who blog like that. Knowing what I know about the culture of Singapore schools, I somewhat doubt it. This is unfortunate. I think that there is a larger issue here. Are we successfully training young Singaporeans to think independently, to form their own opinions, to challenge authority, if necessary? Or are we still repeating past mistakes - creating yet another generation of mindless robots, designed only to score well in standardised exams.
Naturally, the Straits Times, being what it is, never touches on all these issues which Mr Wang has just mentioned. Instead the ST article veers into all sorts of minor distractions, irrelevances and inaccuracies. Let's take a look.
Seven secondary schools and two JCs have asked bloggers who
criticise or insult their teachers online - 'flaming' in Internet jargon - to remove the offending remarks.
Inaccuracy Spotted: To criticise is not to flame. One can criticise without flaming. One can even flame without being critical. Ah, subtleties which elude ST journalists.
One such remark referred to a secondary school teacher as a 'prude' for disciplining a student for wearing a too-short skirt. 'Frustrated old spinster. Can't stand to see attractive girls,' the blog read.Not really. Only the Deputy Public Prosecutors can prosecute and I think most of them would laugh, if they were asked to prosecute such trivial matters as the Naughty Student Bloggers. "Sorry, I'm too busy with my murder cases," I can imagine the DPP saying.
Tanglin Secondary science and PE teacher Tham Kin Loong said: 'I've had vulgarities hurled against me, my parents and my whole family in some students' blogs.'
The 33-year-old added: 'Most of them do not realise the legal implications of what they are writing in such a public domain.'
If teachers wish to prosecute, they may have legal grounds to do so.
Singapore Teachers' Union general secretary Swithun Lowe said the union is ready to back any teacher who wants to take legal action. It has offered legal help to a few members, but they did 'not want to affect the prospects of their young students'.What Ms Doris Chia didn't mention are the disadvantages of litigation. To me, you would be an extremely idiotic teacher to sue in a situation like this (so idiotic that you deserve students to be blogging nasty remarks about you).
Lawyers say students can be sued for defamation, even if a teacher is not named. 'As long as someone is able to identify the teacher, and it is an untrue statement that affects his reputation or livelihood, then the student is liable,' said Ms Doris Chia of Harry Elias and Partners.
An injunction can be taken to get the student to remove the blog and issue an apology, she added.
Imagine, for example, that a student wrote this about you - "Frustrated old spinster. Can't stand to see attractive girls". You could forget about it, and in a few weeks, so would everyone else. Or you could kick up a big fuss, and sue, and attact more attention, and with a little luck, your case and your face may even appear in the newspapers, and everyone will say, "Oh, that's the one. She DOES look like a frustrated old spinster, doesn't she?"
(Clarification: Mr Wang is using the remark "frustrated old spinster" for illustrative purposes only. His above paragraph is not directed at any specific person).
It is also pretty idiotic to talk about legal suits by teachers against students. This is a school, for goodness sakes. What will the teachers do next? Apply for gag orders from the court, against students who talk too much in class? Make police reports against students who litter? Sue students for negligence if they are careless in their homework?
But none of the schools contacted by The Straits Times has banned blogging. Rather, many English and General Paper teachers encourage it to improve students' language and writing skills.ST Dumb Comment spotted: How could the school possibly succeed in banning blogging? Even the Government of China and the Government of Iran can't do it.
The recent cases of two young men and a teen charged with making seditious and inflammatory remarks about Muslims on the Net have led to teachers discussing the dos and don'ts of blogging with students.
ST Irrelevant Nonsense Spotted: What has the anti-Muslim remarks have got to do with students remarks about individual teachers they don't like? Nothing.