On Digital Citizenship and Free Speech

Dear Teachers,

It’s back to school time, and I was THRILLED to have an opportunity this past Monday to address our secondary teachers on my favorite topic. Back in December, I had been asked to put the event on my calendar, and I had assumed it would be the usual “three rotations, expect 25ish people at each session” kind of thing – and I was pretty excited about sharing my #DigCit message with as many as 75 educators in one day.

But a couple of weeks before the event, I was asked how I’d feel about doing more of a keynote-type presentation. Twice. With about 850 educators at each sitting. Ummm – impressing upon almost 1700 teachers in one day the importance of including digital citizenship in their daily routines? Hello – yes, please! Sign me up for my dream come true, and do it fast before you change your mind!

So I walked into this room Monday morning and thought: Gulp. Well. Ok then.


I got there plenty early and had all kinds of tech problems. (You know what I always say about tech: It’s *supposed* to work.) Our wonderful tech crew worked diligently to switch out devices and test the sound and get the wifi working, and at 8:27 I was ready for my 8:30 start.

And of course there were tech glitches, but I had a very benevolent audience and I managed to laugh my way through the parts that were completely uncooperative. If you were in the audience in the morning, I thank you for your good will. And I’m so gratified that my message seems to have been well-received! Many of our teachers made a #digcitcommit pledge on Twitter or on this Mentimeter, and I’m excited to see where our district goes this year as a result of getting people talking about digital citizenship.

At the end of my first talk, one of the staff members from the event center approached me and said, “That was interesting. Where do trolls fit in to all of that?” That was a question I had never gotten before and certainly not one I had been expecting. So I stammered around a bit and said something like, “Well, you know how I talked about establishing a culture of positive norms – what I’d like to see is that it becomes socially unacceptable to be a troll. Oh, and don’t feed them.” His sidekick eagerly jumped in with, “Yeah, don’t feed the trolls!” The first guy continued and said, “Yeah, but what if they’re just being funny? And what about the 1st Amendment?”

So then it dawned on me: Ok, so HE is probably a troll. <insert eye roll emoji here>

In my talks I mentioned, as I often do, that cultural norms often change over time; where we once had a nation of smokers, it’s now hard to find a restaurant that isn’t smoke-free, and where we once had a nation of litterers, we now mostly all throw our trash in the trash cans where it belongs. Thinking on my feet, I said to the Presumed Troll, “The 1st Amendment prevents you from the government throwing you in jail for saying something it doesn’t like. It doesn’t protect you from the consequences of what you might say. Freedom of speech is not a license to be a jerk.” Or words to that effect. In my rosy-eyed view of the world, I like to think that we can create an online culture where it just isn’t acceptable to troll people, for fun or otherwise.

The very next day on my way to work, I heard this NPR story about how Alex Jones is crying censorship over tech companies booting him off their platforms. Twitter does seem to be rather capricious in what it deems offensive content, but it has got me thinking about what censorship really is, and what role censorship might play – or SHOULD play? – in cleaning up the often messy, insulting, and even dangerous arena of online forums and commenting.

Tim Wu, in his New York Times Op-Ed from last November “How Twitter Killed the First Amendment,” writes that in today’s world, we should be less concerned with censorship as governmental suppression of speech, and VERY attuned to the fact that “the world’s most sophisticated censors, including Russia and China, have spent a decade pioneering tools and techniques that are better suited to the internet age.” Obfuscation, disinformation, and dissembling are far more effective forms of controlling a populace. If that doesn’t reinforce to everyone the absolute necessity of media literacy and critical thinking, I don’t know what will. I strongly encourage you to check out the websites of media literacy experts like Julie N. Smith, Renee Hobbs, and Michelle Ciulla Lipkin for some excellent resources. Media Literacy Week is November 5-9, 2018 – but I would implore you, as I do with digital citizenship, to make media literacy a part of ALL of your teaching.

Age-old adages are repeated because they have a lot of truth in them: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Just because you CAN say or do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. You catch more flies with honey. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. I like to think that those messages alone would be enough to teach our kids about how to behave online. But while those age-old words might still be true, they won’t be enough. We must be diligent and persistent in getting our students to fact-check, to look at all sides of an argument or debate, and to recognize propaganda and manipulation tools for what they are.

I know what you’re like, dear teachers, and I know that if anyone can do it, you can. I cling to the belief that  love and goodness – and a lot of fact-checking – will always have the last word. Have a great year!




One thought on “On Digital Citizenship and Free Speech

  1. Excellent piece Nancy…putting the trolls under the bridge where they belong! Thank you for being the voice of concern and reason…”Just because you CAN say or do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.” I absolutely love that sentiment.


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