On The Front Lines
Va. Public School to Use Precrime Thought-Police Program to Deter Off-Campus, Social Media Hate Speech by Students
FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — A Virginia public school system has announced its plan to adopt what has been likened to a precrime surveillance program in order to monitor and deter social media threats, hate speech, bullying and harassment by students. Pointing out that the social media monitoring program being developed and considered by Fairfax County Public Schools (“FCPS”) raises significant concerns about government surveillance and its chilling effect on the lawful speech of students, parents, and other community members, The Rutherford Institute also warned that such a program could give rise to one-size-fits-all zero tolerance policies regarding expressive activity that is misconstrued as negative, critical or hateful.
“While it may appear commendable at first glance, this school-sponsored social media monitoring program is problematic on multiple fronts, not the least of which is the message it would send students that they have no rights: to privacy, free speech, or the freedom to explore different ideas and think for themselves. Indeed, this program is tantamount to an Orwellian precrime program complete with thought police,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Where such an endeavor runs into trouble is when those overseeing this kind of pre-crime program get overzealous and overreach, targeting students for engaging in lawful behavior that triggers the school’s precrime sensors. In such an environment, students learn to self-censor, critical thinking dissipates, and the schools become breeding grounds for compliant citizens, rather than raising up a generation of individuals with a dynamic understanding of what freedom and tolerance mean.”
In November 2021, Fairfax County Public Schools (“FCPS”) issued an Informal Request for Proposal to solicit and establish a contract for social media software which would seek to detect and collect data from social media, classify aliases and usernames, identify connections between persons, set alerts for active listening, and produce high-level summary reports. FCPS intends to use the software for “social media listening” in order to monitor “threats, harassment, hate speech and bullying” which “may be directed to racial groups or any student or teacher within FCPS.” Yet as The Rutherford Institute warned in its letter to members of the Fairfax County School Board, by reportedly subjecting students, parents, and other community members to constant surveillance, the Social Media Monitoring Program lays the groundwork for a broad range of constitutional violations. Specifically, Institute attorneys point out that the social monitoring precrime program threatens to chill lawful First Amendment activity, undermines parents’ rights, could lead to viewpoint discrimination and a troubling expansion of school zero tolerance policies, and may exceed the scope of the Board’s statutory authority. Denouncing the program as an ill-advised plan that could expose FCPS to legal jeopardy, The Rutherford Institute has asked the Fairfax County School Board to reconsider its adoption of a Social Media Monitoring Program and offered to advise and assist the County in striking a better balance between school safety and the rights of students and parents.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.