And right on cue after that last post, here’s another reason to be concerned about this recent trend of outing bad behaviour online, this time right here in Canada. Turns out some teens are mad at their teachers. Um, this is news? Apparently, yes.

A little more detail: nine students from a Brampton, Ontario, Catholic high school were recently suspended for comments they made about their teachers on Twitter. Not all the tweets have been made public, but they seem to range from calling a teacher a “loser”, alleging he “lives with his mom” to a School Board spokesman’s allegation that “[s]ome were sexual in nature.” None of which is very nice, but really?

Our mounting disquiet is shared by this Maclean’s writer, Jesse Brown, who quite reasonably has this to say (and in the light of our last post, it really is worth quoting at length):

I read nothing this morning on Twitter that I didn’t hear about teachers, or say about teachers, when I was a teenager. I wasn’t any more cautious, private or respectful than these kids—I just didn’t have Twitter […] Minors who are unaware of the difference between a public forum like Twitter and a private medium like, say, instant messaging need to be taught the difference, and it’s appropriate for administrators at St. Marguerite d’Youville Secondary School to take this opportunity to do so.

It’s entirely another matter for the media to be reporting on this, or for the school board to be cooperating with them by providing quotes. However careful officials and reporters may be not to name names, an hour of Twitter forensics will easily reveal the students in question.

These kids erred by exposing their teacher to public abuse in front of a small group of their peers. Now they have in turn been as good as exposed themselves, by their own educators and by the media, to a potential audience of millions.

So who’s the cyberbully now?

Hear, hear. There are many ways to harass others. The internet sometimes makes it easy. Naturally, we want offenders to stop, but sometimes we go too far and cross the line into vindictiveness and public shaming. There are two things at war here: our understandable need to prevent cruelty toward the vulnerable versus the right of people to act like asshats. Now, somewhere in there are all the extremes: from kids encouraging other depressed kids to kill themselves all the way to trolls having fun getting a rise out of others, and everything in between. People don’t always behave well. Internet or not, that’s always been true. But suspensions and job losses and (don’t get me started) even jail time (yes, it’s happened, over in the UK) for what essentially amounts to rudeness—even if it’s ugly and bigoted rudeness—is an overreaction by anyone’s standards. One of our democracy’s cornerstones is freedom of speech, after all. So, when the outrage machine goes into overdrive, it’s worth taking a look at that and applying the brakes a little, is all we’re saying.