Are schools exceeding their authority?
It’s the crux of a federal free speech lawsuit filed by four high school students against the Saline Area Schools district in Michigan.
Two were suspended and two are facing expulsion over a Snapchat group posting.
It involves a video made of the group that — at the suggestion of one of the two group founders — said the “N” word. The member who was Black suggested doing so to “stop racism.”
That is without a doubt a bizarre way to go about ending racism but it pales in comparison to what happened next. A Black youth not in the group saw the posting and took a video of the Snapchats and circulated it on social media.
The Snapchats weren’t meant to be public. One of the four students contacted the youth that made the video and reposted it to social media and told him it was meant as a joke. According to the lawsuit, that student said he knew that but added “you can’t (expletive) like that at all.”
It gets worse.
A police officer actually contacted one of the four teens and informed him he was under criminal investigation.
Complicating the incident further was the fact the school did not see fit to suspend or expel the Black teens in the original group involved with uttering the “N” word on Snapchat, just the others.
So why is this now a federal case? Schools after all are given wide leeway under many court decisions and laws to assure campuses are kept secure, safe, and to assure decorum is maintained to allow learning to take place.
It’s because the Snapchats did not take place on school property or at a school sanctioned event. Nor did it happen during school hours or on a school device. The Snapchats were all done on personal devices, not at school, and not during school hours.
The basic question is not just whether the school has the right to regulate speech a student’s speech 24/7 but whether the government does.
We like to separate schools from cities, federal bureaucracies, police, and such but at the end of the day they are all the government. At its most barebones level government exists to build and enforce parameters that enable people to live together in some form of civilized society and to provide for the common good — streets, military, wastewater treatment, and schools — that individuals can’t do on their own. To the degree that takes place, is dependent upon what direction you take it — dictatorship, democracy, republic, and so forth.
Such a lawsuit has been a long time in coming as schools have been taking on a bigger role — egged on in a large part by the community — to discipline youth that are their students for transgressions on social media that negatively impact other students attending their schools. The unfortunate thing is the trigger of events was the use of a repugnant word that — even though used as a joke — is clearly racially charged.
That said it doesn’t diminish what is at stake.
The incident is riddled with George Orwellian overtures such as the police getting involved over teens recorded on Snapchat basically uttering a racist word without any implied threats being made. Having law enforcement involved even if for a fleeting moment puts them in the role of political correctness police and an inch farther down the path to turning officers of the law into thought police.
The schools by exerting their authority to discipline students for acts or utterances that have no connection to the schools in in terms of its origination or fallout simply because the involved students attend their school are kicking the door in for a full-scale home invasion. How a student uses social media that has no connection whatsoever with the school should be treated no different than the student getting a speeding ticket at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night driving their parent’s car on the way home from a movie. It is not up the school to discipline or call the student on the carpet for speeding, it’s their parents.
There would be no need for a federal lawsuit if a school decided to expel a student ticketed for speeding in such a situation. That’s because enraged parents would be storming school board meetings.
When it comes to speech that we may disagree with, too often we stay on the sidelines not because we agree government should be using its heavy hammer per se to control speech but because “in this case” we agree the speech is repugnant so therefore not worthy of protection even if it was clearly meant as a joke.
Words do have consequences.
But so does overreacting to them.
Schools and by projection — the government —should not be in the business of regulating speech or thought 24/7.
It is one thing when you are in a public place such as a theater. And while the Supreme Court ruling everyone alludes to regarding reasonable limits on free speech did not exactly say “it was not OK to yell fire in a crowded theater when there was no fire” it gets the gist of the point across.
There are practical reasons for health and safety to have limitations on free speech just as there are in the workplace and other similar venues such as school. But doing so beyond those carved our exceptions unless it is an implied threat or language that can cause actionable damage such as slander or libel is heavy-handed “Big Brother-ism” at its worst.
It is one thing to stridently go after language that is hurtful and rises to a level beyond someone’s feeling in a setting controlled by schools but doing so beyond the boundaries of school and without using school issued devices is treading on dangerous ground.
If the offense was actively brought to school, that’s a different point. But even so if the act of bringing it to school is done by the offended or someone who simply uses a device while on school property during school hours to scan social media sites and comes across something that offends them posted on a non-school affiliated site it is not the school’s dragon to slay. If it was, then essentially schools will be issuing themselves a blank check not just to penalize students based on what they may do on social media away from school but to essentially criminalize speech by calling in law enforcement.
Educators should not use their government bully pulpit to transdorm their charges into 24/7 Stepford Youth.
And if you think exceptions should be made for regnant use of words beyond a school’s traditional use may I remind you of some of the behavior that more than a few members of the enlightened education system condemned and rallied against over the past century whether it has to do with a child’s sexual orientation, social economic status, or grasp of the English language.
Schools should not be the tool of Big Brother beyond its traditional, jurisdiction regardless of how politically correct it might be to squash something as vulgar to many as the “N-word”.