We have been discussing the rapid erosion of free speech on our campuses. That trend started a long time ago in our high schools where officials have steadily attacked the exercise of free speech by teenagers. Few however have reached the level of censorship and content-based punishment as Revere High School in Massachusetts. Cheerleader Caley Godino has been banned from her team because she tweeted political comments that her teachers did not like about illegal immigration.
The day after the municipal elections Godino was on a field trip outside of the school when her Civics teacher sent out a tweet about low voter turnout in the elections that noted that only ten percent of the population voted. Godson dashed off a response saying “10 percent of Revere voted because the others are not legal.”
The school Administration promptly put her on probation. Superintendent Dianne Kelly insisted that she is supportive of free speech but only up to a point: “If you’re going to stand up and say something that other people will find offensive or hateful, then you need to be prepared to deal with the ramifications of that.” Well, yes, but the “ramifications” are usually more speech — part of a healthy dialogue in a free society. Godino received an overwhelming response from critics. However, Kelly and her staff wanted to silence her voice and punish her exercise of free speech. This seems quite afield from the standard under Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Comm. Sch. Distr. (1969) of punishing those acts that “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”
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. 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 a student 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.
There is much to disagree with in this tweet but we often decry how high school students are not engaged in public debates and issues. This one has a controversial opinion but, instead of challenging the opinion, the school sought to punish the speaker. In this case, a civics teacher raised voting issues (with what turned out to be an incorrect statistics by the way) and a student engaged in the debate. Illegal immigration is a subject that has divided the country and is now a major subject of debate in the presidential elections. It is a troubling lesson for these students who will be the next generation of voters. Our schools are teaching this generation to yield to arbitrary and unchallengeable authority. The reason is that, even when such draconian decisions are rescinded, no teacher or administrator is ever punished for abusing students in this fashion. Kelly is not teaching a lesson of tolerance but intolerance to the student body. It is highly unlikely that the opposing view on immigration would be sanctioned in this way. The result is a content-based punishment of speech made by a student on social media.
I could understand Kelly calling in the parents and the student to express concern over the use of a school tweet to convey views that might be viewed as hurtful to students from undocumented families. However, to actually punish a student for a political statement on social media raises very serious free speech concern in my view.
What do you think?