Last April, a Burlington, Connecticut student named Avery Doninger got angry when the principal of Lewis Mills High School told her that a battle-of-the-bands contest called “Jamfest” would be postponed for a third time and, perhaps, not held at all.
Though exactly what Principal Karissa Niehoff said remains in dispute, there is no doubt that Doninger tried to get the decision changed by rallying students and parents. She sent a mass email and posted this on her livejournal blog:
jamfest is cancelled due to douchebags in central office. here is an email that we sent to a ton of people and asked them to forward to everyone in their address book to help get support for jamfest. basically, because we sent it out, Paula Schwartz is getting a TON of phone calls and emails and such. we have so much support and we really appriciate it. however, she got pissed off and decided to just cancel the whole thing all together.
But as anyone who spends much time online knows, it’s pretty mild stuff. Basically, she got mad and called the principal as a “douchebag.”
A reasonable school leader would have shrugged that off as run-of-the-mill blowing off steam by a student who didn’t like a decision she made. But Niehoff – and her boss, Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz – chose to act like aggrieved sixth graders and upped the ante.
To cut to the chase, Doninger was stripped of her right to run for senior class secretary, which she later won anyway because students don’t like authority figures trumping democracy. The authorities, of course, didn’t let her take office. It’s important, after all, to show that both free speech and democracy are both far less important than showing deference to a school principal.
As a good American with a legitimate grievance, Doninger turned to the federal courts for help. After all, they exist in part protect the Bill of Rights from wayward government officials.
But the judges, incredibly, have sided with the principal and the superintendent, who argued that Doninger’s blog entry, which the principal learned about two weeks later, created a “foreseeable risk of substantial disruption” and thus deserved censure.
This week’s decision by a three-judge appellate court in New York City came down on the side of the principal.
“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,’ at least when it was similarly foreseeable that the off- campus expression might also reach campus,” the court ruled.
This is plain ridiculous.
It is foreseeable that any written “off-campus expression” might reach the school – and, course, that’s the whole point of writing something to rally support for a Jamfest at school.
It’s bad enough that principals have a dangerously misguided notion that free speech within the school is dangerous. But now the door is open for administrators to try to keep students mum day in and day out, wherever they may be.
The obvious question, then, is exactly when and how are students supposed to be able to challenge the government officials who rule their lives?
Is it fine to tell people to bombard the principal’s office with phone messages as long as you don’t also call the principal a douchebag? What if a student writes an opinion piece that challenges a school’s cell phone ban, busing scheme or decision to drop AP Spanish?
There’s no end to the items that principals find disruptive. Basically, most of them think anything other than slavish obedience by students could create “substantial disruption” of their day.
It’s a terrible policy – and a clearly unconstitutional one – to teach young people to go along meekly with whatever an authority figure says. Buy that argument and you might as well give up on liberty.
We have free speech and a free press so that challenges against authority can be made unhindered.
The judges in New York looked beyond even the iffy language that Doninger employed.
They said her words were “plainly offensive” and “hardly conducive to cooperative conflict resolution.”
Since when is “cooperative conflict resolution” in the Bill of Rights? What’s protected is our right to say whatever we want as long as it poses no threat to others.
The only threat to others in this whole sorry case is that wrong-headed judges and power-hungry school administrators can’t see that Doninger was doing what Americans do – using words to rally people to her side. What her foes are wielding is exactly the kind of authoritarian club that our founders fought against.
The court said this week that “local school authorities have the difficult task of teaching ‘the shared values of a civilized social order’ — values that include our veneration of free expression and civility, the importance we place on the right of dissent and on proper respect for authority.”
But dissent that can’t even call a principal a douchebag on a blog isn’t worth a damn thing.