Search form

Lesson Plan Booster: Digital Literacy and Online Ethics


To students, the Internet can seem like a space where “anything goes.” People can seemingly say or post whatever they like, without any negative consequences. In the absence of face-to-face contact, young people in particular tend to lose their inhibitions and do or say things they would not in “real life.”

cyberbullyThis discussion—a perfect activity to celebrate Media Literacy Week (November 7-11)—will open youth’s eyes to the very real human and legal consequences of online behavior, highlighting ethical lessons that can be learned from the poor choices that some have made.

Grade Level:         8-12

Student learning objectives

Students will gain digital literacy (media literacy, information literacy) skills by considering the human and legal consequences of poor choices others have made online. Students will recognize that even when online expression is protected by the First Amendment, it still can result in legal consequences. Students also will discuss the concepts of “netiquette” and “cyber ethics” and then brainstorm a set of guidelines for appropriate online behavior.


  1. You may want to provide the text of the First Amendment to students either on paper or via electronic display.
  2. See frequently asked questions about student free expression and When does student speech become harassment? (Scroll all the way down to the 'Speech Codes" heading to find the answer to this second question.)
    • Acts of harassment are defined as written, oral, or physical acts that harm a student, damage the student’s property, interfere with the student’s education, or disrupt the orderly operation of a school. Categories of harassment are found in several federal statutes and prohibit discrimination based on gender; disability; and religion, race, color or national origin.
    • Schools are obligated by law to prohibit harassment that occurs on school grounds and in some cases can prohibit off-campus action if it disrupts the learning environment of the harassed student. Victims of harassment are also likely to press criminal charges.
  3. Consider the “Summary of Legal Principles” which begins on page 7 of the guide Student Expression in the Age of Columbine: Securing Safety and Protecting First Amendment Rights by David L. Hudson, Jr.

    If the student’s expression is made on school grounds, using school equipment, and/or as part of a school assignment, it is more likely that the school can successfully prohibit the expression. Yet, even expressions that are unrelated to schoolwork and occur off-campus on students’ personal computers (such as Facebook posts) may be subject to school censoring in certain limited situations. David Hudson identifies these specific situations:
    • The student expression is substantially disruptive. If school officials can reasonably predict that the student expression (even if made off of school grounds and not on a school-owned computer) will disrupt the learning environment or interfere with the rights of others in the school community (expressions that can be construed as bullying are a good example) then they can prohibit the expression, and it is not protected under the First Amendment.
    • The student expression involves a true threat. If an expression communicates a serious, clear intent to harm someone — it receives no First Amendment protection and could result in a school ordering the “speaker” to halt the expression (or in the case of online material, delete the material). The expression could also result in criminal charges of threatening or even cyberstalking.
  4. Make sure you’re clear regarding one thing that’s often confusing for students: Even if speech is protected by the First Amendment, it still can result in criminal charges. Speech that is eligible for First Amendment protection is free from government interference; however, a person who feels harmed by someone’s speech may certainly file charges (such as criminal defamation or harassment) against the “speaker.” (You may want to note that laws vary by state in terms of the specific charges that can be filed in various situations.) Even if the accused is found not guilty, other negative consequences are likely to include a publicly announced arrest, embarrassing media stories and significant legal expenses.
  5. Examine the following five court cases and consider their implications.
    • In the 2010 Roger Corey Bonsant case, Bonsant, then a 17-year-old high school student, was arrested and charged with criminal defamation after he was accused of creating a fake Facebook page using a teacher’s name and image. While the case is still being decided, this is an example of criminal ramifications that students may face for participating in dubious online acts.
    • Several cases exist in which students who created false Facebook or MySpace pages featuring the names and likenesses of teachers and administrators. On these pages, students published items painting the educators as drug and sex addicts. In some cases school punishments were reversed by courts, due to the fact that the student activity took place off school grounds and presumably was not sufficiently “disruptive” of the school environment to override the students’ right to free speech. The victims depicted in these false Facebook pages could very well have filed charges, however.
    • In 2011, a 12-year-old Seattle girl was arrested and charged with cyberstalking and first-degree computer trespassing. Authorities alleged that she stole a former friend’s Facebook password, logged into the account and posted explicit content. She was found guilty and sentenced to probation. (The girls’ school does not seem to have been involved in this case.)
    • Six Nevada middle-schoolers were arrested in January, 2011 for using Facebook to invite other students to take part in “Attack a Teacher Day.” They were all arrested and charged with communicating threats, as several specific teachers were called out in posts to the Web site.
    • In the Phoebe Prince case, Prince was bullied (both in person and online) by a group of teens at her Massachusetts high school after it was discovered she had a brief relationship with a boy. The boy’s girlfriend and a group of her friends systematically tormented Prince in retaliation. The bullying was considered a factor in Prince’s January 2010 suicide. All the teens involved were arrested on manslaughter charges. They eventually pled guilty to lesser crimes and were sentenced to probation and community service.
  6. Introduce the idea of “cyber ethics.” Professional journalists and publishers are held to a standard of ethics related to what they write and print (see Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics). Consider whether some of the same ethical standards could, or should, apply to private citizens communicating on a public medium such as Facebook.
  7. explains that “cyber ethics” and “netiquette” refer to responsible online behavior. These terms apply to what people do online when no one else is looking. Explore the following sources of simple tips for young people:
  8. In addition, the Computer Ethics Institute, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance technology by ethical means, generated The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics, a set of guidelines that included the following:
    • Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.
    • Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness [lie].
    • Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.

Introducing discussion to students:  When students’ online behavior draws criticism from others, what kind of guidelines help us as a society determine what is acceptable in cyberspace? The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, federal and state laws, codes of “cyber ethics” and agreed-upon rules of “netiquette” can all play a role in shaping our behavior. We’re going to review some real cases of questionable student online behavior and see if we can learn from them about guidelines that might help us avoid problems.

Options for student discussion or essay questions:

  1. Under what circumstances is students’ online “speech” protected by the First Amendment?
  2. Under what circumstances is online speech not protected (i.e., a school can order a student to stop, and issue punishment)?
  3. Can even protected online speech result in criminal charges? Under what circumstances? What kind of criminal charges can result?
  4. Even if online speech is legal (protected by The First Amendment), do individuals have a separate, personal ethical obligation to avoid certain online behaviors? If so, what kinds of things should not be done online?
  5. What lessons do you take away from the five student criminal cases that we discussed?
  6. How do you think each of the following individuals felt in each case:
    • Accused student(s)
    • Parents of accused student(s)
    • Classmates of accused student(s)
    • Adult or youth victim(s) of students’ online behavior
    • Law enforcement
    • General public
  7. Do you think the judge made the right decision in the Phoebe Prince case, the Seattle cyberstalking case and the cases mentioned in the Star-Telegram editorial? Why or why not?
  8. Do important people in your life talk with you about the dangers of certain online behavior?
  9. Do young people fully understand the consequences of their online activity? Why or why not?
  10. What did you gain from reading others’ lists of “netiquette” rules? Which rules did you like/not like? Which rules do you think young people your age most often don’t follow?
  11. Which of these rules do you personally follow? Do you plan to change anything you’re currently doing online based on these guidelines (this could include not supporting others whose online behavior concerns you)? Are there other guidelines you would recommend adding to these lists?
  12. (If teachers want to pair up or group students) Did you agree with your partner/group about which rules should be on the list? Did you decide to add new rules?
  13. What can we do in our school and community to encourage students to follow these ethical guidelines?

Related resources

Access Denied: Blocked Web Sites and Schools
Lesson Plan Booster: Think Before You Hit Send
Do Texting and Facebook Belong in the Classroom?

Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
Education World®    
Copyright © 2011 Education World


Updated 01/13/2015