Schools vs. free (rude) speech

What Right Do Schools Have to Discipline Students for What They Say Off Campus? No right at all, argues civil libertarian Wendy Kaminer  in The Atlantic.

Griffith Middle School in Indiana aims to transform “learners today” into “leaders tomorrow.” Leaders of which country, I wonder, after reading the Griffith Middle School Handbook. North Korea? The U.S. Constitution appears to have no standing in Griffith.

Students can be suspended or expelled for “innuendos.”  The ban on profanity, pornography or obscenity includes  “other inappropriate materials” and “using or writing derogatory written materials.”  This is “breathtakingly vague,” Kaminer writes. Griffith students may be expelled for “disrespect” toward staff or other students or for “disruptive behavior,” including “arguing.”

Idiotic rules like this are bound to be enforced idiotically, but the consequences for students are not amusing. Griffith Middle School is now being sued in federal court for expelling three 8th grade girls for engaging in a girlish exchange on Facebook that included jokes about classmates they’d like to kill. Their conversation, which lasted less than two hours, was conducted after school, on their own time and on their own computers.

The girls used “LOL” (laugh out loud), smiley faces and all caps to indicate sarcasm, writes Kaminer. They were joking. One of the allegedly threatened students said he didn’t feel threatened and knew the girls were joking. But someone’s mother complained. The girls were expelled for the rest of the school year for bullying, intimidation and harassment.

The students have a very strong First Amendment case — if the First Amendment retains any relevance in public schools. There’s no question that those of us not in actual or virtual custody of school authorities have the right to make jokes about killing each other. Student rights, however, are increasingly limited; anxiety about social media and hysteria about bullying or drug use have only been exacerbated by the post 9/11 authoritarianism that permeates our culture and our courts.

Has the campaign to end bullying — and the fear of school violence — gone too far?

A six-year-old boy in Colorado was suspended for sexual harassment for saying, “I’m sexy and I know it” to a girl standing next to him in the lunch line. The song is featured in a commercial for M&Ms.

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  1. I am definitely in favor of a code of conduct – but your examples do exemplify just how problematic it can be to establish and implement restrictions. If the last example – the example with the 6 year old boy – was a legitimate ground for suspension, then our classrooms would be empty.

  2. At least he knows how it feels to be bullied. Just in case.

  3. Zero tolerance = the last refuge for lazy school administrators.

  4. I don’t know. Sometimes a “girlish exchange” should be monitored. And anytime you have “jokes about classmates you’d like to kill?”…why wouldn’t the school look into that? It’s easy for bullies to throw out a post hoc “I was just joking around.” And it’s easy for the bullied to say, “oh, they were just joking.”

    If this girl hadn’t hanged herself, and instead suffered silently the bullies would be able to play the joke card. If the school had suspended or expelled them, they could have claimed in court that they were just messing around.

    I agree we can be hyper-sensitive, but we can’t continue to allow bullies a “just joking” defense.