Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sotomayor: Remember The Right To Petition The Government For Redress Of Grievances?

That is what Avery Doninger was doing.

'In America, a school prinicpal, a judge, should not stop a teenager from sitting at home on his or her computer and writing whatever comes to them.'

Are the courts teaching the wrong lessons
to America’s children?

Executive Editor
  • The Bristol Press & New Britain Herald

  • Saturday, May 30, 2009 10:12 PM EDT

    Thursday’s front page was the best and most important front page put out in Connecticut that day, by far. Lowell Weicker telling college students to read the U.S. Constiution to understand our rights and freedoms. Critics of Sonia Sotomayor who say she denied those rights to a high school student.

    Weicker, the wealthy patrician former governor, the white knight of the U.S. Senate Watergate hearings, still carrying page one-worthy thoughts about the state of the republic.

    Sotomayor, raised in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of the Bronx, Yale law degree, brilliant lawyer, judge of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals and now President Obama’s first choice for the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Oh, how she will be examined, her legal opinions scrutinized, her own aggressive questioning from the bench called into question.

    She didn’t write the Second Circuit opinion that upheld the Connecticut District Court’s ruling that a high school student can be punished for criticizing school officials in a blog written in her home.

    But Judge Sotomayor joined in that decision.

    It was an ill-advised blow to free speech. Avery Doninger was a student at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington in 2007 planning the popular jamfest battle of the bands.

    She thought school administrators were going to cancel it, and, like a lot of teenagers are wont to do, called them names — douche bags to be precise — and further asked her friends to write and complain to “piss her off more.” Not exactly the best way to win over a school principal.

    But she has the freedom and the right to write such things, doesn’t she?

    If we listen to Mr. Weicker and go back to our founding documents bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers we will find in the Bill of Rights the very First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and a free press, as well as freedom of religion, the right to peaceable assembly, and the right to “petition the government for redress of grievances.” That is what Avery Doninger was doing.

    “Those who won our independence believed . . . that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth . . . that public discussion is a political duty,” is the way Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it in a 1927 opinion.

    There is a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” wrote Justice William J. Brennan for a unanimous 1964 Supreme Court decision upholding free speech.

    So many Americans have fought and died for what we stand for. I think we sometimes sing our patriotic songs, and listen to the memorial speeches all about our freedom and forget exactly what it is.

    We can say and write what we want.

    The government can’t stop me from completing this sentence, writing this column. In other parts of the world, the harsh hand of some sheik or dictator can shut down writers.

    In America, a school prinicpal, a judge, should not stop a teenager from sitting at home on his or her computer and writing whatever comes to them.

    OK, there are limits.

    If I knowingly write falsehoods about someone, I can be sued for libel.

    But I’m here to say that if we keep punishing kids for their thoughts, for what they say and write even when they are angry and upset, how will they learn? How will they keep in their heart the concept of free speech?

    Our Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what our rights and freedoms are. Over the years it has narrowed student free speech rights, unwisely I think, to the point where kids are being taught the wrong lesson. Ms. Doninger was prevented from running for re-election as class secretary because of what she wrote. That’s an absurd punishment and it’s too late to rectify, since she has graduated.

    But she plans to take her case to the Supreme Court, where I’m sure Judge Sotomayor will be sitting.

    Her Appeals Court concluded by quoting the Supreme Court: that public education “relies necessarily upon the discretion and judgment of school administrators and school board members,” and absent “violations of specific constitutional guarantees” the court could not intervene on the student’s behalf.

    But it could have. Sotomayor’s court could have noted that the Supreme Court has said that student speech can be regulated in school, but not out of school. Let’s hope that punishment and censorship doesn’t keep creeping up against our younger generation as young people decide to think out loud.

    James H. Smith is executive editor of The Bristol Press and The Herald of New Britain. Reach him at or, or at 860-225-4601 ext. 304.

  • Free Speech Freedom Fighter To Sotomayor: You Disappoint Me
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