School administrators: Choose your battles wisely

Editorial written by James Baughn on Wednesday, June 28, 2000

from the the-bill-of-rights-is-not-just-a-piece-of-paper dept.

JONESBORO, ARKANSAS -- Valley View Junior High School is embroiled in a lawsuit surrounding the suspension of student Justin Redman for posting a personal webpage critical of the school and his classmates. As a result of the suspension he missed his final exams and thus failed the ninth grade. Backed by the ACLU, he is suing the school for infringing on his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

This case is very similar to one in 1998 involving Brandon Beussink, a student at Woodland High School in Marble Hill, MO. The Court sided with the student, granting an injunction that removed the suspension and grade penalties from his record. Precedent, therefore, is not on the side of the Valley View school in this dispute -- which should serve as a lesson to school administrators that they need to choose their battles carefully.

In both the Beussink and Redman cases, the two students were suspended by the school principal, a punishment that caused them to fail their junior and freshmen years, respectively. Moreover, both published their webpages away at home, without using school facilities at all. The contents of both pages were never made public, but were described as vulgar, obscene, and impolite, but not libelous or violent. Both were critical of the school's websites: Beussink invited students to email complaints to the school while Redman parodied and lampooned the school's site.

Within the memorandum granting preliminary injunctive relief to Beussink, the Judge wrote:

Indeed, it is provocative and challenging speech, like Beussink's, which is most in need of the protection of the First Amendment. Popular speech is not likely to provoke censure. It is unpopular speech that invites censure. It is unpopular speech which needs the protection of the First Amendment. The First Amendment was designed for this very purpose.

Speech within the school that substantially interferes with school discipline may be limited. Individual student speech which is unpopular but does not substantially interfere with school discipline is entitled to protection.

The public interest is not only served by allowing Beussink's message to be free from censure, but also by giving the students at Woodland High School this opportunity to see the protections of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights at work.

While I am not a lawyer (nor do I play one on TV -- or on websites), the reasoning behind the Judge's decision appears to apply equally to the pending Redman case. Here's why:

  1. Redman's webpage was apparently no worse than Beussink's. In a letter to his parents, Principal Sue Castlebury said he was suspended for using "abusive, vulgar, obscene and sexually explicit material". These are similar terms used by Woodland officials to describe Beussink's site. Meanwhile, neither site was defamatory (maliciously spreading false information) nor did they provoke disruptive behavior.

  2. The webpage was not reportedly visited by anyone at school before May 15, when the school administration interviewed the students criticized by Redman and then, after quizzing him, handed down the punishment. Therefore, any argument that he "caused disturbance in the school and disrupted the learning environment," as the principal claimed, are entirely moot. The lawsuit clearly states, "any disruption that occurred that morning (May 15) resulted from the administration's own actions in calling students from class to be interviewed."

    In Beussink's case, some students did visit the site at school before the school administration acted. However, the Judge wrote, "It was clear from the testimony at the preliminary injunction hearing that even though several students saw the homepage, no significant disruption to school discipline occurred."

    The "we're suspending him because he caused (or might cause) a disruption among students" is a common excuse given by administrators. It was used in both of these cases, and in other cases where a student does something extreme (such as dying their hair purple).

    This sort of argument is the mating call of the tyrant. I bet hardly anybody at Valley View knew about the webpage until they heard about Redman's punishment via the ol' school grapevine. They probably would never have found out about it if the principal hadn't thrown such a fit. The same is true of the Beussink case: it garnered national attention, a fact that probably had everybody in school talking and gossiping for weeks. So, then, the actions of the administration probably caused far more "disruption" than Redman ever could with his small-time site only visited by a handful of students.

  3. When asked by the school, Beussink agreed to take down his homepage immediately, which he did. It was only afterwards that he was punished. Redman, on the other hand, was forced to take his down without a choice.

  4. Redman created his webpage at home, on his own computer, on his own free time. School resources were not used at all, which calls into question the school's jurisdiction in this conflict.

    The article about this matter in the Arkansas-Gazette (June 23) stated:

    However, [School Board President] Woodruff said the boy was suspended May 15 for 10 days for "disruption of the school." He acknowledged that the disruption resulted from something on the boy's personal home computer, "but it also reached into the school. It involved the school."

    "It's just one of these situations with the dangers of the Internet and how it affects the school," Woodruff said from his office.

    I've already shown that the "disruption" argument is completely groundless. Woodruff's last sentence is downright scary. The Internet is no more dangerous than any other medium of expression: it can be used for good or evil. Mr. Woodruff apparently sees it as evil, a viewpoint shared by far too many people who have had little experience with it. Anyways, I fail to see how the school was affected in the first place, other than the fact that the teachers and administration will have to deal with this loudmouth for another year because they flunked him. Is that what they really want?

    I hate to say it, but Mr. Woodruff proves that Mark Twain was on the money when he said: "First God created idiots. That was for practice. Then He created School Boards." (Of course, if Mark Twain were a Valley View student, he would've been suspended by now.)

So there you have it. Valley View has refused to rescind the punishment even in face of a lawsuit they are likely to lose, much to the detriment of local taxpayers and the students in the district. Other districts have been forced to pay monetary damages in such cases; in Ohio, for instance, one school forked over $30,000 to a student suspended for a webpage critical of his band teacher. Redman has not sued for such damages, but that doesn't mean the school isn't on very thin, cracking ice.

The administrations of Woodland and Valley View schools, among others, elected to fight a battle against the First Amendment. They need to choose their battles more carefully or face being trampled by those people who actually value freedom, liberty, and the Constitution.

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