Digital Definition

Recently, the Australian school Marist College Ashgrove suspended a Senior student for the creation of a group on Facebook entitled, “If one million people join I will give back Daniel Morcombe.” Daniel Morcombe was abducted from the Sunshine Coast at the age of 13 and has been missing for six years. This joke group was deemed offensive and “sick,” and the headmaster of the college described the act as “contrary to the values of the school.” The sensitivity of this incident was further heightened by a previous case in which a memorial Facebook page for a murdered Brisbane student was defiled with offensive comments and images of child pornography. With the advent of social networking sites, Internet blogs and other online forums, such cases are becoming increasingly prevalent, and communities worldwide are struggling to find appropriate responses, both regulatory and disciplinary. In particular, it has proven difficult to decide what constitutes harassment, hazing or offensive behavior in the context of the Internet. The Blue Book addresses the issue by stating, “The Academy will respond to complaints of harassing or discriminatory use of its technology resources in accordance with its Anti-Harassment and Anti-Discrimination Policy.” This clause establishes that students can be held responsible for Internet content and behavior in the same way they are held responsible for their behavior in the library or in their dorm. If a student posts a video in which they are smoking or drinking with their friends, they may be prosecuted as they would if they were found doing such things on campus. Issues like smoking or drinking are near universally condemned, and therefore the disciplinary actions towards them are concrete and firmly established, regardless of the environment in which they occur. However, when it comes to vocalizing personal opinions, especially when they could be seen as having offensive connotations, the current response mechanisms are both vague and unclear. When such opinions are voiced in an online environment, the appropriate discipline should be delegated in the same manner as if the incident occurred in “real life.” While one may not face similar disciplinary action when voicing controversial opinions that can be construed as offensive in the real world, the same should apply to online expression. To once again refer to Phillips Academy regulations, The Blue Book states, “Verbal or physical conduct that has the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for any member of the community cannot be tolerated.” Concepts like “hostility” and “offensiveness” are very complex and resist definition even in the familiar context of the physical community. Therefore, extreme care and precision must be exercised when specifying what constitutes offensive or hostile behavior on the Internet. The vague and undefined nature of our current response mechanisms, when dealing with issues in the online realm, must be eradicated if our disciplinary system is to evolve with current technology. The Internet is a constantly evolving forum, and as it changes, so must we. This editorial represents the views of Editorial Board CXXXIII.