The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a ruling by the United States District Court for Connecticut against Avery Doninger, who was disqualified from running for high school class secretary after posting misleading and vulgar comments about school events and officials on a social networking site. This is an important case for anyone interested in the First Amendment, as well as for any parent who believes that his or her children should have the freedom to behave like louts at all times.
From the District Court opinion denying Ms. Doninger's request for an injunction:
Social networking websites and blogs (or web logs) have in recent years become an important part of the lives of young people, and many adults. But as some have come to discover to their chagrin, postings on such sites and blogs are often very public and the statements and information posted can have consequences for the blogger. Avery Doninger – a poised, intelligent, and articulate senior at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Connecticut – recently learned this lesson for herself. Frustrated at school officials over developments regarding a music festival she had been planning, Avery posted a public message to her fellow students on a social networking site. Just about everyone but Avery agrees that the manner in which Avery expressed her frustration was offensive and inappropriate. For the message used a vulgar, slang term to describe school officials, it contained at best misleading and at worse false information regarding the music festival, and it called on students and their parents to write the school superintendent in order to "piss her off more." When school officials – who had advised Avery before she made her blog posting about the proper way for student leaders to address issues of concern with the administration – discovered the message, they disqualified Avery from running for class secretary for her senior year. According to school officials, Avery's conduct in posting the blog message failed to display the qualities of civility and citizenship that the school expected of class officers and leaders. That was Avery's only punishment; she was not suspended or removed from school, she did not receive any other written discipline in her permanent school file, and she continued as a member of student council and as a leader of her student music class.
Ms. Doninger, feeling that the punishment did not fit the crime, sued for an injunction requiring the school to let her run for secretary. Her request was denied, as the lower Court, now affirmed, held that school officials did not violate Doninger's First Amendment rights, and refused to interfere by determining whether the punishment was "fitting."
Now if this were a case involving an adult, or speech not related to the running of the school, or a real political office as opposed to an invented one like senior class secretary, it would be an easy call as a First Amendment violation. But it isn't. It concerns a student, a minor whose rights are traditionally limited to an extent, and speech concerning the context in which those rights are most circumscribed: school. We curb minor students' rights in all sorts of ways relating to school, most notably their freedom of association. They may not want to go to school, but we make them do it anyway under truancy laws.
The Second Circuit, in affirming, noted that while students have First Amendment freedoms, those freedoms are subject to regulation by school authorities in the interest of educating and civilizing their students, and that regulation can occur even for off-campus speech when that speech is intended to come to school authorities, speech such as urging fellow students on a myspace page to "piss off" a "douchebag" or "dirty whore" in school administration, especially where that speech includes false information intended to disrupt school administration, as Doninger's indisputably was. That Doninger was prevented from holding an office in student government, which is intended to work with the administration and lead fellow students by example, and nothing more, simply went to the appropriateness of the punishment.
Running schools is a difficult task at all times, not made easier when students like Avery Doninger attempt to cause "sit-ins" against "douchebags" by spreading false rumors that "Jamfest" has been cancelled rather than merely rescheduled. My sympathy in this case lies entirely with the administration, who issued the mildest sort of punishment for Doninger's conduct, but even if it didn't, I think that the Second Circuit and District Court got it right in this case. Ms. Doninger meant to disrupt her school. That she did it from a home computer rather than holding a picket sign on campus is in the end irrelevant.
Ms. Doninger, while surely disappointed, can surely take consolation in learning a valuable lesson on civics, good manners, and the limits of this country's very broad free speech protection. Her parents can take an equally valuable but more expensive lesson from this about the costs of needless litigation.
The title of this post, by the way, is a direct quote from another person who evidently believes that the First Amendment should guarantee freedom from the natural consequences of saying hurtful and outrageous things, part-time rapper and actor, and full-time asshat Ice-T, who complained that his constitutional rights were infringed when stores refused to carry his records after he endorsed the murder of policemen in the song "Cop Killer". Like Ms. Doninger, and like forum members and blog commentators all over the internet, Ice-T believed that the freedom of speech we enjoy under the Constitution is a blank check, insulating us from any repercussions whatsoever when we say stupid things. Like Ms. Doninger, he was quite mistaken.
Via How Appealing