Monday, October 22, 2007

We Protect Far More Than Just Polite Speech

Connecticut Post Commentary

Connecticut Post Online

Article Last Updated:10/19/2007 09:22:52 PM EDT

Last Sunday a group calling itself Poets & Writers for Avery assembled at the Litchfield Inn to raise money for Avery Doninger, the high school kid punished for what she wrote. She is suing the Region 10 School District of Burlington and Harwinton for robbing her of her First Amendment right to free speech.

It's not just poets and writers who should worry about the loss of free speech. All of us should. Avery was punished by school officials for what she wrote — not what she wrote at school, but what she wrote at home. So here is a question — who should discipline a teenager for something she does at home — school officials or parents?

What she wrote wasn't very nice. She called school officials douche bags, which, according to Webster's, is slang for "an unattractive or offensive person."

Avery Doninger was the junior class secretary and a member of the student council. She was angry because she thought school officials were canceling the annual Jamfest — a battle of the bands that she was in charge of organizing. She wrote her comments on her blog at, a social networking site. Anyone could read her remarks, which also encouraged others to write to the school superintendent "to piss her off more."

Once again, this was on her home computer, not at school, but school officials punished her by not allowing her to run for senior class secretary. (Students wrote her name in and she won the election, but the school administration insisted the student they endorsed should be the secretary).

If Avery wrote her remarks at school and passed them around in the hallways — and if you are into punishing people for what they write — then perhaps there's a case for the school district to act. It seems to me this is a parental matter.

The teen and her mother, Lauren, sued the principal and the school superintendent, asking for a new election in which Avery could run for class secretary. Federal District Court Judge Mark R. Kravitz in New Haven ruled that her punishment did not violate the girl's constitutional rights. The family is appealing to the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

Avery, "a poised, intelligent, and articulate senior at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington," wrote Judge Kravitz, "is free to express her opinions about the school administration and their decisions in any manner she wishes. However, Avery does not have a First Amendment right to run for a voluntary extracurricular position as a student leader while engaging in uncivil and offensive communications regarding school administrators."

In other words, if she wants to run for office, she can't speak her mind if she uses off-color words. Sounds to me like an infringement on free speech and on the very act of democracy — running for office.

Kravitz did allow that if some other form of discipline (which he did not specify) had been imposed then he might have a concern that her First Amendment rights had been violated.

Kravitz held that teachers "must teach our children to think critically and to object to what they perceive as injustice. But school officials also must inculcate the values of civil discourse and respect for the dignity of every person."

All well and good, but the First Amendment isn't there to protect tame speech. It is there to protect speech that makes us uncomfortable, that we disagree with, or is patently offensive.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times that high school students do not enjoy the same rights as adults. The court has permitted students the passive activity of wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, but has allowed school officials to censor on-campus speech they deem vulgar or offensive or otherwise contrary to the schools' mission to "inculcate the habits and manners of civility."

My concern is that schools are losing the opportunity to teach about the importance of the Bill of Rights, free speech included. Adults can use offensive speech, partly because what may offend some is music to the ears of others.

"The sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office," wrote Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in a 1988 case. "At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern."

He quoted Justice Felix Frankfurter that "one of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures (with even) vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks."

So yes, let's teach that civil discourse is a societal good, but also teach that the right to free speech is the foundation of that good.

James H. Smith is the editor of the Connecticut Post. Reach him at 203-330-6325 or by e-mail at

  • Avery Doninger Free Speech Federal Hearing Transcripts

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