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FREE SPEECH FOR STUDENTS
School administrators are not free to try to run the kids' lives elsewhere, and they deserve no more protection against criticism than anyone else in a democracy -- which is none at all.
By CHRIS POWELL
Jan. 31, 2009
If a federal court decision involving a case from Mills High School in Burlington is allowed to stand, school administrators in Connecticut will have the power to punish students for criticizing them outside school. If, instead, Connecticut enacts legislation proposed by state Sen. Gary D. LeBeau, D-East Hartford, a retired teacher, students will regain freedom of speech outside school.
The case is that of Avery Doninger, who two years ago, as a junior at Mills High, complained in a posting on the Internet about the school administration's cancellation of a school event. In the process she called administrators a name. They retaliated by knocking her off the ballot in the election for class secretary and then refusing to let her serve even when she was elected by write-in votes. (The administration tried to conceal her election, and throughout the controversy has withheld information and dissembled, as school administrations usually do when challenged.)
The administration complained that Doninger had disrupted and disgraced the school, but the only disruption was the inconvenience endured by the administration when it had to answer complaints Doninger's Internet posting had encouraged about the cancellation of the school event. Such complaints were the result of political agitation, exactly what the First Amendment means to protect. As for the supposed disgrace, Doninger's name calling, rude as it may have been, was mild, did not approach obscenity, was apologized for, disrupted nothing, and took place outside school.
LeBeau's bill would forbid schools from punishing students for electronic correspondence transmitted outside school unless it contained threats. The bill should be expanded to protect all student expression outside school. The criminal law already provides all the protection schools need against threats and disruption.
School administrators can lord it over the kids on school grounds, and many become petty tyrants about whom feckless school boards do nothing. But school administrators are not free to try to run the kids' lives elsewhere, and they deserve no more protection against criticism than anyone else in a democracy -- which is none at all.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.