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Frank D. LoMonte: Schools shouldn’t devalue First Amendment

  • Published Thursday, May 16, 2013, at 12 a.m.

It does not seem all that terribly important to defend the ability of students to make jokes on Twitter. But devaluing the First Amendment in schools has real educational and civic costs, both for the individual student who is wrongfully over-punished and for students who will be frightened into silence knowing they might be next.

The suspension of a Wichita Heights High School senior for a harmless Twitter wisecrack about his school’s athletic teams indisputably was against the law (May 8 Eagle). But beyond being illegal, it was a misguided educational decision.

A school where students must constantly second-guess everything they say for fear of punishment is one that inadequately prepares young people to debate issues and settle differences as participants in a democratic society.

Heights principal Bruce Deterding has effectively told the school community that being threatened with violence for voicing a harmless opinion is a punishable act of misconduct. Being bullied, in other words, is grounds for suspension.

Although Teague’s tweet was of no great consequence, punishing him sends an intimidating message to any student who wants to use the Web to call public attention to real deficiencies at the school.

What about the student who believes that a coach is abusing his players and starts an online petition seeking his removal? If the players loyal to the coach threaten to beat up the whistle-blower, will he be suspended from school for provoking them?

Students are under no enforceable “duty of loyalty” to say only favorable things about their schools. Schools are the government, and criticizing the government is not merely a right but a duty of citizenship. Since Deterding and assistant principal Monique Arndt do not seem to understand this, their supervisors must say so, forcefully – and back up their words with action.

Across the country, young lives are being damaged by zero-tolerance discipline imposed without regard for common sense. Consider the 7-year-old in Baltimore suspended for chewing his breakfast pastry into a shape that a teacher thought resembled a gun. Or the San Francisco high school senior expelled for writing a poem that expressed her thoughts about the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.

When disciplinary overreactions occur, we all shake our heads collectively and mutter, “Oh, those wacky principals,” and then … nothing. No one ever apologizes, gets fired or is otherwise held to account for the misuse of public authority.

This needs to stop. Misfired school discipline carries grave consequences. It may make great fodder for “news of the weird” columns, but it is no laughing matter.

Even a single out-of-school suspension can sidetrack a student’s academic performance, stigmatize him as a wrongdoer, and change his trajectory in life from success to failure.

In an ultracompetitive college environment, an undeserved disciplinary record for “disruptive speech” could be the difference between an applicant’s acceptance and rejection. Schools should not be placing limits on young people’s futures over misunderstood jokes.

Legislators across the country who are stampeding to give principals seemingly limitless authority over what students say online should take a hard look at cases like Teague’s. Any attempt to legislate online civility must be accompanied by rigorous First Amendment training for school administrators, swift punishment for those who overreach, and a fair opportunity for wrongfully accused students to fully clear their names.

Frank D. LoMonte is executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

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