SINGAPORE: Schools act against students for 'flaming' teachers on blogs

Five college students suspended for posting offensive remarks about school administrators

The Straits Times
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

By Sandra Davie and Liaw Wy-Cin

Free speech may be the buzzword on the Internet - but libel is unacceptable everywhere.

The message has been sent out loud and clear, with five junior college students being punished for posting offensive remarks about two teachers and a vice-principal online.

The students, all girls, were made to remove the remarks from their Internet diaries, or blogs, and suspended for three days last month. Their parents were also informed.

The case is not an isolated one. Of the 31 secondary schools and junior colleges contacted, 18 said they were seeing more such incidents as the number of bloggers surges.

Seven secondary schools and two JCs have asked bloggers who criticise or insult their teachers online - 'flaming' in Internet jargon - to remove the offending remarks.

One such remark referred to a secondary school teacher as a 'prude' for disciplining a student for wearing a too-short skirt. 'Frustrated old spinster. Can't stand to see attractive girls,' the blog read.

Tanglin Secondary science and PE teacher Tham Kin Loong said: 'I've had vulgarities hurled against me, my parents and my whole family in some students' blogs.'

The 33-year-old added: 'Most of them do not realise the legal implications of what they are writing in such a public domain.'

If teachers wish to prosecute, they may have legal grounds to do so.

Singapore Teachers' Union general secretary Swithun Lowe said the union is ready to back any teacher who wants to take legal action. It has offered legal help to a few members, but they did 'not want to affect the prospects of their young students'.

Lawyers say students can be sued for defamation, even if a teacher is not named. 'As long as someone is able to identify the teacher, and it is an untrue statement that affects his reputation or livelihood, then the student is liable,' said Ms Doris Chia of Harry Elias and Partners.

An injunction can be taken to get the student to remove the blog and issue an apology, she added.

But none of the schools contacted by The Straits Times has banned blogging. Rather, many English and General Paper teachers encourage it to improve students' language and writing skills.

Schools also said they do not police blogs. They say they only check them after complaints are made.

'And if we feel that the remark is untrue or unfair, then we expect the student to apologise,' said Raffles Institution vice-principal S. Magendiran.

The recent cases of two young men and a teen charged with making seditious and inflammatory remarks about Muslims on the Net have led to teachers discussing the dos and don'ts of blogging with students.

It is not known exactly how many student bloggers there are, but after a recent school blogging competition, the Media Development Authority called the practice a 'raging phenomenon among the youth'.

The MOE said it does not issue guidelines to schools on blogging, but leaves it to them to take appropriate action.