Last week a controversial story broke at Hickman County High Schoool. Hickman County is very rural and it’s located about an hour west of Nashville. Apparently the principal there has a policy where every instance of cursing results in one minute taken off the entire school’s lunch break. The students retaliated by putting together a video with cuts of students in various places at the school saying the phrase ‘Bitch ass’ and even included their names at the end. When they came back from Christmas break last week each student in the video received three days of in-school suspension for being in the video, and the director/editor was kicked out of school for the year.
Comments on the WKRN Facebook post about this story are the typical you expect in Tennessee (though maybe a little milder since everyone is using their real names). 75% of the comments think the kids got off easy and should probably go to the electric chair for disrespecting their elders. (‘In my day we had rules!!!11) The other 25% want to moan about how the fascist government doesn’t respect freedom of speech. I, of course, disagree with both camps to one extent or another.
Before I rant about how this isn’t a free speech issue, here’s the text of the first amendment where free speech claims come from (their is also lots of case law on the topic of free speech in schools, but I’m not a lawyer so it seems best to not go there):
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Notice the first amendment says “Congress shall make no law”. That means Congress can’t infringe on your free speech. It doesn’t say anything about your boss , your homeowner’s association, your school, or even a local government having to uphold your freedom of speech. It just says Congress.
I took a look at the Tennessee constitution too. Here’s the freedom of speech reference I found in article 1, section 19:
<snip> The free communication of thoughts and opinions, is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty. <snip>
The wording here is a lot more vague and subject to interpretation. If you wanted to interpret it strictly this clause prohibits any person or entity in the state from limiting speech or expression in any way. In my opinion, that interpretation grants a lot more power to the writers of the state constitution than any person or group should ever have. I would give that strict interpretation about as much credibility as an argument that it doesn’t apply to video because video isn’t explicitly mentioned. My interpretation is on par with what I discussed above regarding the US Constitution. The state constitution only prohibits state government from limiting speech and expression.
If you’re still with me at this point then it’s pretty obvious that I come down on the side of the school officials here, but I still want to explain why. (Hint: It’s not because I think they need to show respect to their elders like everyone on Facebook seems to think.) I think the students should be punished for two reasons. (1)The school has an explicit rule against profanity. (2)They were on school property so they’re subject to school rules. Based on the severity of the school boards reaction they probably would have dropped the hammer no matter where the video was taken, but if it had been anywhere other than at school I would have agreed with the students. The school has the right to limit profanity on school property, but they can’t govern what the kids do outside of school.
Now that I’ve come out in favor of crushing free thought in high school students… I also think the school board took this act of defiance as a threat to their authority and way over reacted. They disciplined over 100 students and the total enrollment at the school is only 600. It seems pretty clear that this was a thoughtful (or what passes for thoughtful to a 16 year old) response to a school policy. The inclusion of everyone’s names makes that pretty clear. In that light I definitely think suspending nearly 20% of your students is over the line and probably not in the best interests of the school system either.
When you reduce it to the bottom line, I think the school system had the right to punish the kids but they went way overboard. A lighter punishment would have been more appropriate, and an attempt should be made to work with the kids so everyone is satisfied.