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May 24, 2006

Blog About School, Get Expelled

Did I miss the announcement that Tinker v. DesMoines had been overturned? This school district certainly acts as if it had -- to the point that even the exercise of student speech off campus is forbidden and punished if it relates to school.

A 17-year-old high school student who posted comments online about Plainfield School District 202 is facing expulsion because of his blog, his attorney said.

After serving a 10-day suspension over his posting on Xanga.com, the teen is scheduled for a hearing Thursday on the matter, attorney Carl Buck said. The student is back in school but could be expelled and sent to an alternative school, Buck said.

"They are trying to terminate his educational rights," he said. "Neither the parents, student or I believe this warrants expulsion. This seems pretty aggressive for the kind of [posting] we are talking about here."

Now I'm the first to accept that certain sorts of off-campus speech can be grounds for discipline, but what are we talking about in this case? Fortunately, we can judge for ourselves.

On May 1, the student posted a letter to Plainfield School District on his blog site on www.xanga.com , telling off the district, using vulgar words and saying he could put whatever he wanted on his site.

On a second post on May 2, without mentioning the school the student wrote:

"I feel threatened by you, I cant even have a public Web page with out you bullying me and telling me what has to be removed. Where is this freedom of speech that this government is sworn to uphold? ... did you stop to think that maybe this will make parents angry that you are bullying their children around? did you ever stop to think that maybe now you really are going to have a threat on your hands now that you have just pissed off kids for voicing their opinions? Did you ever stop to think this will start a community backlash? The kids at Columbine did what the did because they were bullied.

In my opinion you are the real threat here. None of us ever put in our xanga's that they were going to kill or bring harm to any one. We voiced our opinions. You are the real threat here. you are depriving us of our right to learn. now stick that in your pipe and smoke it."

Now I don't see a threat there. Do you? I don't see anything that merits a suspension, much less expulsion. What is the theory upon which this district is taking disciplinary action against this young man, since it is off campus speech on his own time from his own home, on a website that cannot be accesed from the school?

In a written statement, officials said they don't monitor student Web sites or look up postings unless they create a disturbance at school.

"When a posting creates a disturbance to the educational environment or threatens the safety and security of students or staff members, it is the responsibility of the school district to look into the matter," the statement said.

"The district respects the 1st Amendment rights of our students, but not all words can be categorized as protected speech."

Now that is a mighty broad criteria for monitoring and exerting control upon off-campus activity outside of school hours. I don't know what was in his friend's blog that led to his being disciplined and censored, but it is irrelevant to the action being taken against him. He voiced a pretty clear First Amendment argument from a libertarian perspective in the initial post on May 1 (LANGUAGE ALERT).

dear plainfield school district 202:

i know you read this. and you suck. suspend me or what ever you would like to do. but this is my fuckin web site and i can put what ever i want on it. kinda goes with the first amendment. by suspending kyle again for his xanga you guys are pathetic and totally irrational. first amendment you fucks. freedom of speech. and who the fuck are you to say what some one can do from there own personal computer. one more thing kiss my ass.

edit: this one is for you, and yes i have drank it and yes it was delicious!(come get me)

Miller Lite Logo2.JPG

His argument, while less articulate than I would like to see and too profanity-laced, is really quite straight-forward. Outside of school, students have First Amendment rights which must be respected by government officials -- and since they do not "surrender those rights at the schoolhouse gate" it is beyond the scope of school authorities to punish or prohibit that speech except in the most dire of circumstances. I don't see where this even begins to qualify as such a circumstance.

And the second post, which does refer to sanctions being imposed against students for posting about drug and alcohol use at student parties (the paper above editted that out) is probably wrong in asserting that the school has no authority to punish descriptions of illegal activity by students -- but they have that authority only to the degree that students are partcipating in extracurricular activities, and the punuishments can only extend to removal from those activities. But his reflection on bullying is dead on, as is his observation about the possibility of public backlash cause by the extension of school authority beyond the school building and school day and into student homes. His comment on Columbine is hardly sufficient to qualify as a threat, and without a threat there can be no reasonable basis for action.

Now the administration does claim the authority to punish a wide area of speech -- and I am frankly frightened by the scope of their claimed authority.

[Superintendent John] Harper said school districts across the state are having to deal with policy issues regarding Web sites like www.xanga.com . Many area schools, like Plainfield School District, are creating new guidelines for their student handbooks for next school year.

"Kids don't realize that if there is a connection with the school or has a potential of creating a disturbance to the school, they can be disciplined for it and they don't appreciate the personal threat to them for posting information on the Internet," Harper said. "It is our responsibility to educate kids and help them work through some of these issues."

Harper said students need to understand that the First Amendment does not give them "absolute authority to say whatever they want to say in any situation.

"The First Amendment doesn't give an individual the right to scream 'Fire' in a crowded theater and say that is protected by First Amendment rights," Harper said.

"Certainly things that are insulting to a school administrator or to a teacher are protected by the First Amendment rights," Harper continued. "We are looking at safety issues, potential disturbances to the school environment. Those are parameters, those are criteria we will look at when it comes to the issue.

"If we do have a student using inappropriate language on a Web site it is not our business. If they write obscenities in regards to one of our staff members that is grossly obscene, we feel that we would have the right to take action in that kind of case," Harper said.

I'm flabbergasted. First, he trots out the "fire in a crowded theater" analogy -- but then seems to extend it to any speech that the school dislikes on the basis that it could cause a disruption. Does this include a letter to the editor about the school? Would it include an interview by a television station? How about a call to a local talk radio station about events at school. It seem that the definition of "disruption" is "anything that paints the school in a bad light." And while there may be some extreme instances in which a school could act against a student who was grossly disrespectful to a teacher or administrator, it would probably have to be so extreme as to violate provisions of criminal or civil law before the school could act on such speech if it was engaged in off campus. So while Harper claims that he isn't out to control all off campus speech (ore even all off campus internet speech), I think the clear implication of his statement is that the school claims jurisdiction ofver all student speech which comes to its attention, whether it is speech at school or speech away from school.

Schools are supposed to prepare our students for life in a free and democratic society, one in which government is limited and citizens have broad rights to speak and write as they see fit, even if it criticizes or offends public officials. I therefore urge the Plainfield district to rethink its gross abrogation of the constitutional liberties of its students.

And I urge the student, who goes by the handle Heckler3672bro, to write a thank you note to Superintendent Harper and his building administrators for the college scholarship money that he will be receiving from the district following the conclusion of his lawsuit against the district.

OPEN TRACKBACKING TO: Free Constitution, Blue Star Chronicles, Bacon Bits, Conservative Cat, Freedom Watch, Stop The ACLU, Stuck on Stupid



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Comments on Blog About School, Get Expelled

I've given permission for someone who I had banned from the site to post a comment -- she sent me a reasonable response to what I had written and I think it merits inclusion here. For that matter, her decision to moderate her tone and approach me with a classy, contrite, and humble apology and explanation has led me to begin reassessing our prior communication.

So welcome back, Kim.

|| Posted by Rhymes With Right, May 25, 2006 05:08 AM ||

Did you read his Xanga "blog"? The kid is obviously not an "upstanding Student", and he's partially illiterate. For Chrissakes, he QUOTED EMINEM!("Sue Me"-from an album intro). He threatened his school, and people in it. I think we both know he's not likely to act on it, he's not smart enough.(Which might be an implement to carrying out a "columbine", now that I think about it). However, such threats aren't to be taken lightly. At the very least, they should make an example of him. As a high-school student, one of my worst fears is walking into the cafeteria one day to find some pothead holding an AK-47.(As a Teacher, I'm sure you feel the same).
Anyway, what I'm getting to is, Why would you support this guy as a person, let alone as a teacher?

|| Posted by Kim, May 25, 2006 01:34 PM ||

Welcome back, Kim.

I saw a very, VERY vague threat in his remark. Something that definitely doesn't warrant suspension, though.

He made a columbine reference and mentioned "backlash." In my mind, the kid was completely right. There should be no punishment what so ever done by the school based on what happens outside of school on a non-school-related website.

If a student says something that is "threatening", then let the authorities handle it. It's their jurisdiction. Schools have no right to enforce their dictatorship-like laws on students when not in school.

|| Posted by Eric Clemmons, May 25, 2006 03:34 PM ||

And I guess that I don't see anything approaching a substantive threat in the Xanga post (though I agree with your assessment of his writing skills, Kim). And to be honest, I don't believe the school really sees anything approaching a threat to do violence at the school -- if they did, they would most assuredly have taken the time to contact the local cops, the county sheriff, the FBI, ATF, or some other law enforcemnt agency, and this boy would have been arrested. The fact that there was no attempt to bring in law enforcemtn clearly implies that they are either not concerned that there is a threat here OR that the administrators in this district are criminally incompetent. After all, if you read the article, this kid is BACK ON CAMPUS IN CLASSES pending the expulsion hearing.

No, what we have here is a case of school authorities going after the kid because he has dared to challenge them. Rules about school authority over the internet are still a bit vague, and administrators around the country are trying to carve out as broad a claim as they can before the courts speak in any definitive fashion. But we all know that if this kid made a similar statement on a radio call-in show, there would be not punishment from the school. Such words said in an interview by the local television station would also not get him punished. Neither would a letter to the editor to the local paper (though I doubt he could write one that would not require substantive editting). The administration would fuss and fume over what he said, and probably verbally bully him, but they would not seek to expel him because of the bright line around those forms of media drawn by the First Amendment. But the internet is new and different, ao they will push a little harder -- especially since they can conceivably force a retraction and expurgation that they could never achieve in with the other media. As a teacher... scratch that. As an American, I'm deeply offended by such actions.

And Kim, by the way -- I do share your fear of guns going off on my high school campus. The difference is that one did several years ago, three doors down in another classroom. The drug dealing punk in question was playing with his weapon in his pocket during class, and it went off. There were, fortunately, no serious injuries. We had a gun picked up on campus a couple of months back, from a kid in the room next to mine.

Now I won't go so far as Eric does -- I think there are times when schools can act on the basis of a website from outside of school. But there would have to be something there that constituted a real threat, not a clumsy analogy. I know that codes of conduct for extracurricular activities can extend to non-school conduct -- though not to the point that they constitute a rpudiation of the civil liberties of students.

|| Posted by Rhymes With Right, May 25, 2006 06:07 PM ||

This kid doesn't seem too bright, but there are bigger things at stake than his right to party. And like others have said, he didn't threaten anyone. I think it's critically important to differentiate references to bad things that have happened (e.g., Columbine) from threats to duplicate them. Is everyone who mentions 9/11 a terrorist? Of course not. Even people who disagree with our foreign policy or question our government's ethics, even a few professors who have said that we *deserved* 9/11, aren't terrorists. They're just talking about something that happened, and they have the right to do that.

Now if a student says "Columbine", a lot of principals get all upset. OMG, they fret, what if this kid's going to pull another Columbine?! Yeah, it's a scary prospect. No one wants to get killed at school. But that doesn't mean that Columbine shouldn't be talked about, and it doesn't mean that Columbine is as much a metaphor for how someone feels when they're backed into a corner as it is a threat of violence.

Here's a story from my high school: A few years ago, we had a little "inquisition" to figure out who was listening to rock music at home. Most kids just lied about it to get off the hook, and of course the one who didn't got expelled and took all his siblings with him. Never underestimate the power of pride. Teachers don't like to be wrong, even when they’re standing up for something ridiculous. If they stake something on a principle, they aren't going to back down easily, especially not when they're being challenged by someone they don't respect.

Back to the case of the Illinois boy, I think we should all be more afraid of our government and educators and the climate they're creating than of the “threat” posed by this kid and his Xanga whining. If you haven't noticed, freedoms we took for granted are eroding around us, courtesy of the "war on terror" and the Patriot Act/post 9/11 government. Little by little we're losing the ability to express ourselves. If we don't stand up for our rights now, even in the stupidest of cases, we might not have them down the road when something more important is at hand. We can't afford to let them set this kind of precedent.

Maybe if schools focused more on, I don't know, educating people, they'd have less time to try to micromanage their home lives.

|| Posted by a., May 30, 2006 12:35 PM ||

Online writing, especially on a blog, shouldn't really be a reflection of intelligence. My sister write extremely casually online and she has a Ph.D.. One of the best English teachers I know, as well as my dad, use netspeak often. And he's a kid, Eminem's more likely to be relatable to him than say Shakespere or Aristotle.

I had an acquaintance who was suspended in school for something she wrote on her blog. It wasn't even anything worth being suspended for; someone in her class made a fuss and the suspension was made.

Why are schools so threatened over what the students write online? Why EXPULSION? If you're going to expel something, expel them for real harm caused - this doesn't cause any harm. It's not like he posted up plans to bomb the school online or something. He just wants to vent.

|| Posted by Tiara, May 31, 2006 05:50 AM ||

I tend to come down in favor of free speech. If someone threatens someone else, compiles a hit list, or whatnot, then that is of course actionable.

However, all this young person did is parade his horrifyingly poor vocabulary and grammatical skills in favor of free speech. Just because he comes off as immature does not make him less correct.

There was recently a story about a couple of boys who were suspended from school for making a "Hot or Not" list of girls ats school on their xanga or myspace page, I can't remember which. Apparenly the girls mentioned then got teary-eyed at school, and the two boys got suspended. Now the story is that they got specific about body parts on the girls. The page is now inaccessible, so we can't judge for ourselves.

It appeared they wanted to make girls that they considered out of their league to notice them. Mission accomplished, but not the results they expected.

It is time for people in our lawsuit- and PC-crazed society to realize that sometimes the best response to boorish behavior is a cutting silence, not calls to cut off the offenders' heads.

Would the people who support penalties for student webpage behavior feel the same if the situation was focused upon them? Remember, many of us have blogs where we express opinions about all kinds of things, including work, and some workplaces have tried to act upon employee blogs with the same kind of intimidating tactics.

|| Posted by Ms. Cornelius, May 31, 2006 05:36 PM ||

I realize I'm a little late to the party, but I didn't see this when you first posted it. I agree with the general sentiment against punishing the kid, but there's a little more backstory to this.

Based on reading some Xanga blogs related to that of this student, here's what happened at Plainfield South. At the end of April a group of kids, who appear to be Heckler3672bro's buddies, set a fire in the bathroom and were suspended. One of them wrote a defiant open letter to the school in which he said, paraphrasing, "why don't you just die Ms. X," referring to an administrator. (That's just the gist of it; it was a pretty angry tantrum.)

A day or two after that post Heckler3672bro and a couple of other kids posted their own open letters demanding that the school respect their rights and stop reading their blogs. My intuition tells me, based on the tone, that some administrator at the school cautioned them about what they said on their blogs, and these kids, knowing it was related to what their buddy had written, took it upon themselves to protest. They May 2 post, the one that got him in trouble, was written, I think, because after the May 1 posts the school brought made another announcement, reminding them that really were reading the posts, which just made Heckler3672bro angrier. After the May 2 post, the student was suspended.

So there's a little more here than just a couple of posts. I wrote about it at my own URL, but all of that is summarized above.

I agree the that we reasonably conclude that the student said, even though he mentioned Columbine, is not a specific threat and therefore within his free speech rights. But it is very close to being a specific threat and the context of the events that led to the letter tells me the school had reasons to be nervous beyond the statements in the student's posts alone.

Also, the school has responsibilities to every student. We're assuming that the school just decided to go and look at Xanga on their own. Having looked at a bunch of the student blogs at Plainfield South, I can tell you that there are a number of kids who I do not believe would be amused by fires in the bathroom or references to Columbine. These students might have been the informants, and the school has responsibility for their safety as well.

|| Posted by mckreck, June 1, 2006 08:54 AM ||
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