The editorial board of the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper is so angry at a social media video of a white high school kid saying obnoxious racist things that it wants the state to intervene:
In the case of the most recent video, the school system is claiming there is “little” it can do, given that the incident happened off campus and not during school hours.
Our question: Is that really the case? Is the school system claiming it has virtually no power over non-criminal behavior of its students off campus?
That may be the district’s current policy, but we’re not so sure it should be.
The person allegedly shown in the video reportedly plays on a Chiles athletic team. Are we really saying that he is supposed to waltz into practice – perhaps with African American teammates – as if nothing happened?
This isn’t how it works in the real world. If a staff member of this newspaper was videoed doing these things, he would immediately face termination, whether “on the clock,” “on the premises” or not.
Should a student be treated differently? Perhaps. But it’s worth discussion.
No, it’s not.
For one, there’s a significant legal difference between a private business and a public school.
For another, public schools around the country are struggling over what degree of discipline (including expulsion) to apply to students who misbehave in school itself (see here, for example). Why on earth would the editorial board want to add to the schools’ burden by making them responsible for disciplining kids outside of the school’s custody, off school grounds?
Third, it would probably be unconstitutional. According to the ACLU:
In the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the ACLU successfully challenged a school district’s decision to suspend three students for wearing armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The court declared that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The First Amendment ensures that students cannot be punished for exercising free speech rights, even if school administrators don’t approve of what they are saying.
And that’s on school grounds. How much greater is the liberty for students to say obnoxious things when they are off school grounds?
Fourth, if the schools were somehow to be empowered to discipline students for activity outside of school, where would it stop? What guidelines would the schools use? This would be ripe for abuse by administrators. We can all agree that some redneck clod riding around talking about shooting black people with a BB gun and using racist slurs crosses an important line. But where should the other lines be drawn? One kid’s free exercise of religious speech is another kid’s idea of bigotry. If a kid attends the Westboro Baptist Church on the weekend, and participates in its protests, and that fact comes to the attention of his school principal, should that be a cause for discipline? What is he is a black Muslim and follower of the anti-white, anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan, and participates in public advocacy for Farrakhan’s cause? Should that kid be punished for that?
Is this really what the Tallahassee Democrat wants to see debated?
It is really depressing when journalists, the kind of people who ought to be defending the First Amendment and the protection it gives even to repulsive speech, instead urge the state (in this case, the public school system) to consider punishing students who exercise that speech in ways of which the journalists strongly — and in this case, correctly — disapprove.
The reader who sent this editorial to me comments:
The high school in question is in an affluent area, and their students are known around town for having high rates of drug and alcohol use. Evidence of this is certainly available on students’ social media, but there isn’t any push for punishing them or their parents for this illegal activity that takes place off school grounds and outside school hours. If public schools are going to punish students for unacceptable behavior, who gets to define what it is?
And what does “rooted out” mean? Suspension? Expulsion? There are plenty of disruptions that occur on school buses and during the school day that don’t result in severe enough penalties to prevent them from happening over and over again. But this admittedly reprehensible conduct completely outside the school environment means the schools have “work to do”? Don’t they have enough dealing with the problems in school during the school day? In just the last few weeks I’ve heard of a suicide attempt and incidents of theft at “nice” public middle schools, and a fistfight breaking out between girls in the middle of class in another well-regarded public high school.
Finally, as anyone who has ever raised a teenager knows, they will do things their parents raised them specifically not to do. For all the paper knows, this child’s parents abhor his behavior — but the newspaper’s superior morality is sufficient to condemn them without, as they admit, knowing what goes on their home. The only thing my 13-year-old and I agreed on this whole week was what horrible ideas these are!