A federal appeals court offered up a disturbing bit of Constitutional reinterpretation this week regarding the free speech rights of students. The decision also erodes the rights of parents by saying that saying that schools have “a responsibility… to teach students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.”
The case involves a high school student who wrote a blog post expressing frustration with school administration over a special event, and encouraging other students to write the administrator with their opinion about the event as well. Weeks later the post came to the attention of the school administrator, who enacted discipline of the student, namely, preventing her from running/serving in a class elected office. The student’s mother filed suit claiming the student’s free speech rights had been violated. The Hartford Courant article says:
The case originated in a dispute last spring about the Burlington school’s Jamfest, a battle of the bands that Doninger helped coordinate. Frustrated that it was not going ahead as planned, Doninger wrote on her livejournal.com Weblog that “Jamfest is canceled due to the douchebags in central office.” She encouraged others to write or call Schwartz “to piss her off more.”
The disruption the blog post caused, the court wrote, included students getting riled and administrators receiving phone calls and e-mails that made them miss or come late to school-related activities.
Whether or not one agrees with the ability of the school to discipline a student for criticism of school administration is not the issue which concerns me about this court decision. She was expressing her opinion outside of school. If I wrote similar criticism, my freedom of expression is protected speech because I am an adult. I don’t have to like, or agree with what this student said, think it was a good idea for her to say it or even like the effect of her words, to feel strongly that she has a Constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression.
This is a dangerous precedent to set. Essentially, the court has ruled that school administrators’ rights to ensure order within the school walls trump those of students’ right to freedom of expression anywhere. As I mentioned above, this erodes the rights of parents by giving schools the power to discipline children for actions outside of school that may affect “order” within the school. Think about that. Do we want school administrators to be the arbiters of discipline for our student’s speech, writing and behavior anywhere? Do we want the courts to, ironically, limit the expression of students whom they have said are able to be responsible for their sexual preferences, reproductive choices, and even decide which gender they are? What’s next? Will the courts decide that religiously motivated expression outside of school – such as speaking out about creation v. evolution, or blogging against abortion – is also disruptive to order within the school (disruption of order is the standard set by the Equal Access Act of 1984, which allows student religious organizations to exist with the same benefits and responsibilities as other extracurricular clubs)? How can this change the rights of students to participate in the political discussion? Myriad potential complications come to mind when considering this statement:
The court said there was no Supreme Court precedent to rely on in a case in which the expression does not occur on school grounds or at a school-sponsored event.
“We have determined, however, that a student may be disciplined for expressive conduct, even conduct occurring off school grounds, when this conduct ‘would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment,’ or at least when it was similarly foreseeable that the off-campus expression might also reach campus,” the appeals court wrote.
Again. I’m not saying that what this student did was the wisest choice. But, because the court considered the potential impact of her speech in her status as a high school student, the freedom of expression of all students is at risk. These are not variables applied to limiting the expression of adults except in the most extreme of potential dangers, or unless agreed to contractually by the individual. This decision broadens the scope of school administrators to oversee that which occurs outside of their institutions.
What do you think about the ramifications of this decision to limit the freedom of expression of students?