Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Danbury News Times Editorial: School Officials Go Too Far

The picture of school officials
trolling teen Web sites
for derogatory remarks is repressive

Free speech

School officials go too far in usurping student's rights

Danbury News Times
Sept. 19, 2007

A high school senior is being punished, unfairly, for something distasteful she wrote about school officials on her personal blog.

The remark, which amounted to sophomoric name calling, posed no physical threat. Keep in mind that it was made from her home, after school hours.

Avery Doninger was not allowed to be reelected last spring as secretary of her class at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington after school officials heard about what she called them.

She and her mother sued the school district saying Doninger's right to free speech was usurped.

Although students should not be calling school officials crude names, we support a student's right to speak out. It's called free speech.

Students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," according to a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District).

In the Connecticut case, the student's free speech rights should not be "shed" at the door to her home either.

Local educators are grappling with how best to protect other students and create a safe learning environment.

Bethel Schools Superintendent Gary Chesley said he likely would have stepped in, as the Mills school officials did, so that off-campus situations would not become on-campus problems.

A U.S. District Court judge in New Haven agrees. Judge Mark Kravitz, in a preliminary ruling on the case Aug. 31, determined that school officials had the right to punish the student for her remarks about them at home as though they were made at school.

That is an effrontery to free speech everywhere.

Monday was Constitution Day across the country, a day mandated by the government for public schools that receive federal funds to teach about the document that enables our democracy.

But a new Knight Foundation survey indicates an appalling lack of awareness about rights.

Forty-five percent of the students surveyed agreed that "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees."

What is shocking and sad, however, is that one-third of the teachers surveyed agreed with that statement.

So much for free speech.

It is no wonder that the Mills educators were quick to curtail student expression, even in a home, instead of underscoring individual rights and responsibility.

This has, of course, backfired. Avery Doninger is becoming a cause celebre; nearly a dozen noted writers in the state are rallying on her behalf in a Litchfield benefit next month.

For educators, the Internet certainly has brought murkiness. Where once a student's remark would be heard by only a few, now it can be broadcast to untold numbers.

The intentions of those who must keep peace in schools may be good, but to squelch a comment that is not threatening and is generated off school grounds goes too far.

The picture of school officials trolling teen Web sites for derogatory remarks is repressive.

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