There is another controversy raising the increasing assertion of authority of school officials over pictures and statements made by students outside of school. In Massachusetts, Jamie Pereira was suspended from school after a photo of her and her boyfriend, Tito Velez, both 16, holding Airsoft rifles was posted on Facebook. A caption beneath the photograph read: “Homecoming 2014.” The picture looks like a new American Gothic for some and a threat to others. However, the controversy again raises the limits and discretion of school officials in monitoring speech outside of school for students and teachers alike. There was good reason to be concerned but the punishment was due to the disruption caused rather than an actual threat from the picture.
The admitted mistake of the teenage couple was to put “Homecoming” at the bottom of the picture. School officials were legitimately concerned but this was not a preventative step but a disciplinary action. There is no suggestion of an actual threat intended by the picture. I fail to see why such problems cannot be addressed with a reprimand and calling in the parents. Both students have been suspended for an unknown length of time.
Superintendent Richard Gross insists that punishment is appropriate and will reflect the disruption caused when the picture was circulated by other students. Notably, the picture was posted hours after a Washington state teen shot five fellow students inside his high school before taking his own life. However, Gross insisted that “This is about the tumult created by their online activity.”
The teens were apparently just trying to come up with something different for their pre-dance photos. The photo was later removed.
Velez, who could not be reached for comment early Wednesday, reportedly said he and his girlfriend simply wanted to “do something unique and different” instead of taking typical pre-dance photographs.
I have previously written about the increasing monitoring and discipline of teachers for conduct in their private lives. We have seen teachers face discipline over social media pictures holding a weapon. Even a picture of a teacher holding a glass of a drink is enough to trigger discipline.
Once again, there is clearly a need for officials to act upon any threat. However, there remains a dangerous ambiguity over the scope and use of such authority. Given the ludicrous application of “zero tolerance” rules, officials commonly impose extreme punishments rather than exercise judgment (and expose themselves to the risk of criticism) over the handling of such controversies.
We have seen a steady erosion of the free speech rights of students in the last decade. The Supreme Court accelerated that trend in its Morse decision. Former JDHS Principal Deb Morse suspended Frederick in 2002 during the Olympic Torch Relay for holding up a 14-foot banner across from the high school that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” The case ultimately led to the Supreme Court which ruled in Morse v. Frederick ruling in 2007 for the Board — a decision that I strongly disagreed with and one that has encouraged over-reaching by school officials into protected areas.
For a copy of the Morse decision, click here.
Civil libertarians hoped that Obama would appoint someone with a strong commitment to free speech and student rights. I was very concerned over the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor because of her role in the Donniger case where she ruled against high school student Avery Doninger who contested her punishment for posting an objectionable message on an Internet site about Lewis Mills High School. When she objected to the cancellation of a school event in vulgar terms, school officials barred her from running for Senior Class secretary. In Doninger v. Niehoff, the Second Circuit upheld the right of school officials to punish students for out-of–school speech in a major blow to both the first amendment and student rights.
This case has obviously different and more compelling facts for actions. However, this remains a picture taken outside of school with two airsoft guns. It would seem an appropriate cause for a telephone call and not some open-ended suspension in my opinion.
Source: Taunton Gazette