Superintendent, police investigate gossip Twitter account about Minn. school

Case raises First Amendment questions

MINNESOTA — School administrators and local police are investigating a Twitter account they say was created by several students and recent graduates of Worthington High School to gossip about classmates.

The Worthington Daily Globe reported that over 90 tweets had been posted, many of them “sexually explicit, derogatory and simply untrue.”

Superintendent David Landgaard was notified about the account by the Daily Globe when the WHSTrojanGossip handle showed up in a newspaper employee’s search results for “Worthington.” Landgaard called police, who then contacted Twitter and the page was removed by the end of the day.

“They’ve got a regular policy and procedure that they implement. It’s available to anybody that goes to the Twitter site, and they’re the people that should be commended on this,” Flynn said. “They respond to it when you have [a tweet] that is sexually explicit and possibly could result in violence. You don’t know that, but that’s what bullying usually leads to.”

Detective Sergeant Kevin Flynn of the Worthington Police Department that the creators of the account could face charges including terroristic threats, harassment and libel. Neither Landgaard nor Flynn would go into further detail about what the tweets said.

“I’d be more concerned if I was one of those youngsters with a civil suit,” Flynn said. “It takes a lot less, as you know, of preponderance of the evidence as opposed to beyond a reasonable doubt. I certainly would think that that would be more of a concern than anything criminal.”

Flynn said the investigation is still considered open, and he is waiting to hear from school administrators on how they wish to proceed. The school is first working on finding out who created the page. So far Landgaard said he has a half page list of students that were possibly involved.

“We’ll look at it from a school’s standpoint as far as it was related to the school,” Landgaard said. “So once we figure that out and determine where things are at, we’ll take a look at it as a school.”

However, a big question remains about whether the school has the power to punish the students for off-campus speech, especially speech made when school was out of session.

“Legally speaking, he shouldn’t be able to do anything,” said Adam Goldstein, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center. “He’s in charge of students to the extent he needs to maintain order in the physical building. That’s the authority we give to school officials.”

Landgaard defends his responsibility to get involved because the tweets used the school district’s name.

Although police may be able to file charges, Goldstein said the students have legal rights at school if the superintendent tries to punish them.

“If you think you’re going to punish students for what they do during the summer, and not get sued, this is the wrong line of work for you,” Goldstein said.

In addition, Landgaard said that student athletes involved have a greater responsibility to not bully others because they signed a special student conduct form.

“Minnesota High School League has a code of conduct for any student athlete that’s involved with any type of extracurricular,” Landgaard said. “So there is the potential for this being a violation of the code of conduct.”

He said taking part in the Twitter account as an athlete would violate the code’s policy in regards to “treatment of others.”

Yet, legally, Goldstein does not think a contract could be created to dictate this.

“It makes sense to say you can’t go drinking and you can’t do a bunch of drugs and be on the sports team because, as it turns out, drunk people high on meth are really good at football, so that’s like cheating,” Goldstein said. “You couldn’t condition participation in a government benefit on a willingness to surrender free expression.”

Both Landgaard and Goldstein agree that parents should be involved in student’s actions at home.

“Parents need to become involved and monitor their children,” Landgaard said. “That’s a huge part of this whole thing. Whether it’s school time or not, parents need to keep track of their kids.”

By contrast, Goldstein thinks that parents should be the only ones involved in monitoring what their children say at home, not school administrators.

By Nikki McGee, SPLC staff writer

Minnesota, news, social-media use, Worthington High School