Headlines on letters-to-the-editor pages and comment threads across America contain the words “school officials overreacted” so often that it’s almost become a cliche. Most of the time, aggrieved parties write about relatively trivial affairs — school buses are late or a vice principal suspended Johnny for inadvertently putting a pen knife in his backpack.
Sometimes, however, the implications of school district overreaching are far more profound, as when a federal judge recently upheld the actions of Connecticut school officials who had sanctioned a student leader for writing unpleasant things about administrators on her blog.
Student free speech rights in a public school setting have long been a gray area of the law. What can students write about their school, their teachers and their administrators in the school newspaper, for example? Except when they go totally overboard, educators have traditionally been given wide latitude by the courts to censor content in school newspapers on the grounds of maintaining order and protecting the reputations of those who would be maligned. But the extent to which administrators can discipline students for speech outside of school is less clear, particularly in a new-media era in which students can publish their thoughts with a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse.
To wit, Avery Doninger, a student leader at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington. In 2007, Doninger, then an 11th-grader, was upset that school officials had decided to cancel a popular school activity that she herself had helped organize. So she went home and wrote a stinging blog post, calling unnamed administrators “douchebags” and urged her readers to complain to the school. But she stopped short of suggesting an uprising or encouraging acts of civil disobedience.
At this point, I can just picture puffs of white smoke coming out of the ears of red-faced school officials. For the act of publicly expressing her displeasure, Doninger was stripped of her title of class secretary and lost her spot on the ballot for re-election. She ran anyway as a write-in candidate and won, but administrators refused to recognize the results. And students who attended an election assembly wearing “Team Avery” T-shirts were told by the principal to take them off.
Arguing that her free-speech and equal-protection rights had been violated, Doninger sued Lewis Mills administrators. On two separate occasions, lower courts ruled in favor of the school. The latest decision by the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan, also in favor of the school, shows just how wrong-headed the courts can be when it comes to the free-speech rights of public school students.
Jon L. Schoenhorn, the Hartford attorney who represented Doninger, has suggested his client, now a student at Eastern Connecticut State University, will appeal, though he acknowledged her legal options are dwindling. In a speech at the Litchfield Inn a few months after the incident, Schoenhorn reviewed the criteria by which courts have traditionally allowed schools to police student speech.
“What you need to understand is that even in a school, school administrators can only take action against students if what they say tends to … substantially disrupt . . . the pedagogical interest of the school — which is a fancy way of saying ‘the running of the school.’”
But in its latest ruling, the federal court said, it was “objectively reasonable” for school officials to think Doninger’s behavior was “potentially disruptive” of student government functions. “Potentially disruptive?” That’s the standard? Reminds me of those boneheaded selectmen and planning and zoning officials who vote to go into executive session because an agenda item “could potentially involve litigation.” Just as you could use that excuse for hiding virtually any discussion from public view, so too could educators use a “potential disruption” as a pretext for putting the kibosh on half the activities in a typical high school.
On some levels, it’s understandable — indeed commendable — that administrators feel compelled to maintain order in their schools. I myself have worked as a school administrator and am well acquainted with the challenges of the job. But the tendency to err on the side of suppressing speech is schooling at its worst. Too often, the overreaction is motivated more by a desire to show the students who’s in charge than by practical considerations or disciplinary principles.
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.