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School district scrutinized over suspensions

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CNY/NNY/S. Tier: School district scrutinized over suspensions
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It's a case that has stirred lots of opinions. A posting about a teacher on Facebook has led to a number of North Syracuse middle school students being punished. It's touched off a debate over freedom of speech. But, as our Bill Carey reports, there are also questions raised about protections for all of us from defamation and libel in an age of internet anonymity.

NORTH SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Last fall, seventh graders at Roxboro Road Middle School attended special assemblies to discuss cyber-bullying. An assistant District Attorney talked to them about sexual harassment on the internet. Again, the concern was what students might say about other students.

Now, the target was a teacher. Defamed, the school district claims, on Facebook with postings they say were obscene. The girl who posted the message was suspended. More than 20 others given detention for being fans of the site.

"The language is, a reasonable, foreseeable risk. You're putting a teacher at risk as far as her effectiveness in the classroom, as her reputation is attacked. That's serious," said North Syracuse School Superintendent Dr. Jerome Melvin.

In this case, concerned parents disabled the posting as soon as they became aware of it. But the problem is more widespread than one student's post. And the courts have made it clear they are unlikely to order removal of even the most outrageous comments.

"I've seen some very horrific things by people who contacted me to pursue claims and no matter how bad and in what horrible taste it was, that internet service provider is not liable," said attorney Alan Pierce.

Chances are, if someone were to post a comment on you, there would be very little chance of ever having it taken down from any message board and even less of a chance finding out who posted the message to begin with.

"That's kind of the wave of what's going on now is people trying to find out who it is. And there's a lot of litigation going on and there are some cases where they're not even, people will go in and they'll end up suing to get the name and they sometimes don't get it," Pierce said.

The North Syracuse School District says it's hoping to send a message.

"The lack of civility is apparent and I think the internet has helped speed that up," Melvin said.

The challenge remains balancing free speech and the promise of the internet age, with the threat of a communications tool becoming little more than a channel for virtual graffiti.

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