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Schooled in the ways of the Blogosphere

Student bloggers in Singapore are being chastised for making juvenile jibes about their teachers. But they’re only doing what the big bloggers do.

Grace Chua

Topics Science & Tech

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Five junior-college students from the tiny, technology-savvy city-state of Singapore were punished recently for posting offensive remarks online about their teachers. One called a teacher a ‘prude’ for disciplining a student wearing a too-short skirt. ‘Frustrated old spinster. Can’t stand to see attractive girls’, the student blog said (1). The teenage girls were suspended for three days each and made to remove their remarks from their blogs, and their parents were informed.

Other secondary schools and junior colleges have started cracking down on student bloggers too. Singapore’s mainstream English-language newspaper, the Straits Times, contacted 31 schools and colleges, 18 of which reported seeing ‘more such incidents’ as the popularity of blogs increases (2).

The question is: how are they finding out? According to the Straits Times, schools aren’t monitoring students’ blogs; quite aside from the obvious impossibility of doing so, it would be a tremendous waste of resources, Apparently, they are only checking them ‘after complaints are made’ (3). The passive verb strikes again and the plot thickens. Who’s making the complaints, then? Other students? Teachers spending their free evenings Googling their fifth-formers?

The law isn’t on the bloggers’ side either. According to Singapore lawyers (4), a student can be sued for defamation even if the teacher isn’t named, as long as there is enough information in her comment for the teacher to be identified. Indeed, the Singapore Teachers’ Union has offered legal assistance to any teacher wishing to sue a student, but so far no teacher has taken up on the offer. However, the possibility of a lawsuit still exists.

But the real issue isn’t defamation or lawsuits. It’s the message sent by schools taking action against bloggers, effectively teaching young students that they have no right to express an opinion – or worse, no right to an opinion at all. It’s telling students that they should never challenge authority. Moreover, once ‘offensive’ speech starts getting banned, the umbrella of what is ‘offensive’ grows faster than a mushroom after rain.

The fact that the possibility of action exists may deter bloggers from posting anything that could remotely be construed as libellous or offensive, even if it is in fact a justifiable viewpoint. That’s already enough of a problem in Singapore, where people tend to keep their opinions to themselves, stifling the flow of effective and potentially constructive feedback. If the internet is to be an avenue for participation in civil society, such attitudes need to be changed.

Freedom of speech may be touted as one of the best things the internet has to offer, but is its potential really being fulfilled? Assuming there is free speech online, how is it being used? This web war of words seems like a childish waste of the internet’s potential. First of all, it’s rather juvenile lampoon your teachers on the web: 16- and 17-year-olds should be permitted some leeway for experimentation and testing the waters, but they should also be mature enough to know better. There’s a difference between blogging about Mr Davis giving an ineffectual history lesson and making snide remarks about Miss Ratna’s weight or dress sense.

Rather than clamping down on what gets written online, schools should be teaching students to give constructive, mature feedback, and to think critically about the public nature of the internet. But students are unlikely to learn how to be discerning if the rules about exactly what can and cannot be said are cut and dried.

All this fuss illustrates the downside of blogs. The biggest advantage of blogging is that anyone can do it. The biggest disadvantage of blogging is that anyone can do it. It’s all too easy to blog – all you need is internet access and a keyboard. Weblogs are a bit like graffiti in a public toilet: anonymous and of dubious provenance.

Student bloggers may make juvenile, off-the-cuff remarks online, but they are really only taking their lead from the adult blog culture that’s out there. For every quality blog providing thoughtful, critical analysis of the day’s issues – for every 2blowhards or Instapundit, for instance – there are 20 more personal blogs offering too much information about bloggers’ mundane daily lives: what they had for breakfast, the movie they went to see last night, their crank conspiracy theories about the US government and the Illuminati.… (6)

If blogs are to be considered useful sources of feedback and comment, people need to stop treating them like public toilet walls. Speech may be free, but that doesn’t mean intelligent thought should fly out the window as well.

Grace Chua is from Singapore, studying in America, and currently working as an intern at spiked.

(1) Schools act against students for ‘flaming’ teachers on blogs, Straits Times, 27 September 2005

(2) Schools act against students for ‘flaming’ teachers on blogs, Straits Times, 27 September 2005

(3) Schools act against students for ‘flaming’ teachers on blogs, Straits Times, 27 September 2005

(4) Schools act against students for ‘flaming’ teachers on blogs, Straits Times, 27 September 2005

(5) The Defamation Act, in Singapore Statutes Online

(6) See Was New Orleans flooded to make way for a new Las Vegas…?, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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