Passion For Reason

Schools as Facebook patrol

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It’s less about whether to be libertines or prudes, or how lenient and how severe. That will merely drag us into the amorphous debate on obscenity, and lead us to say, “I know it when I see it,” in the famous words of US Justice Potter Stewart. Rather, it’s about who gets to make the call, and whether we can carve out spheres in our lives where we can be free to be ourselves without having to worry about prying eyes.

St. Theresa’s College in Cebu has reportedly barred a 16-year-old high school student from attending her graduation ceremony because she had posted on Facebook a photograph of herself wearing a bikini. The school invoked its duty “to see to it that the children’s values [were] developed,” and that “in order to maintain the morality of the school … rules and regulations [were] issued to the students as guide[s].” One such rule prohibits the “posting and uploading [of] pictures on the Internet that entail ample body exposure.” Accordingly, the school principal ordered that the girl “cannot join school activities, functions and privileges [senior’s bash and practices for graduation]” and that “she cannot join the commencement exercises.” (It is unclear whether she was merely barred from the ceremony but was actually allowed to graduate.)

The girl’s mother, a physician, has sued to compel the school to allow the daughter to join the commencement event. The incriminating photo was apparently taken at the birthday party of a friend. The parents had permitted the girl to attend it, and the mother herself doesn’t consider the photo obscene.

One, concededly, the school has the power to adopt its own institutional mission. If St. Theresa’s says that its goal is to advance the moral formation of its wards in strict Catholic tradition, it will be acting within its own academic freedom. We can split hairs here—the Constitution guarantees academic freedom only to “institutions of higher learning,” which means colleges and universities, and not high schools. But I don’t see how that distinction matters here. Any school worth its license to operate should be respected in its school mission.

Also, the parents accept that mission when they enroll their children and entrust them to the school. The school’s mission is therefore binding upon the parents in two ways: legislatively, as rules adopted by the school, and contractually, as an agreement to which the parents consent on registration day.

A parallel case arose many years ago, when the University of Santo Tomas disallowed a Bb. Pilipinas candidate from re-enrolling because she had in the meantime appeared in a Tanduay poster. The Senate conducted an “inquiry in aid of legislation,” during which the venerable senators inspected the rather explicit photographs and were satisfied that indeed the Pontifical University had been skimpy in its respect for the human rights of the Bb. Pilipinas candidate. Eventually, UST relented, and allowed her to re-enroll provided she vowed never to display her God-given ampleness too amply.

Two, however, under the Family Code, the school exercises “special parental authority” only during school activities. The mother says that the bikini shot was taken at a “family or private social activity [that] does not involve the school’s supervision and control” and “was not connected with the school curriculum.” The school cannot install itself as moral watchdog over a student’s entire life.

Three, the school actually intruded into the student’s privacy. The photograph was apparently posted on the girl’s Facebook account whose privacy settings allowed access only to her friends. The school officials were not her Facebook friends, and were kibitzers into the child’s zone of privacy. Indeed, if indeed the girl’s privacy settings gave access only to her friends, the girl’s Facebook posts are technically hearsay vis-à-vis the school officials because they were not privy to her posts.

Of the three arguments, the third is most empowering. In the first two, the high school student is merely the passive object as two powers, the school vis-à-vis the parent, collide over the power to run her life. In the third, she is the active subject, able to express herself among her friends, able to pick and choose who those friends are, and yes, able to choose how she wants to dress during her friend’s birthday party.

Finally, it is not fatal to the mother’s case that apparently she had earlier taken part in the disciplinary case. The school’s legal counsel insists that due process was observed because the “parents were present when the child signed the probation.” Is counsel saying that fundamental rights can be waived? Not everything can be bargained away by contract. Can a Muslim student be forced to bargain away his religion in exchange for enrolling in a Catholic school? Come on. This silly argument must be put to rest once and for all.

Last weekend, I visited a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I used to hear Mass the last time I taught there. I saw these words on the Sunday missal: “No matter what your present status in the Catholic Church; No matter what your current … marital situation; No matter what your personal history, age, background, race, etc.; No matter what your own self-image; You are invited, welcomed, accepted, loved and respected here at St. Peter Parish.” Given the unnecessary ruckus over the innocuous Facebook photograph, will we live to see the day when the Filipino Catholic can be as open and as welcoming? Is the Filipino Catholic capable of being truly catholic?

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