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In what seems to be a disturbing trend, yet another high school student was punished by school officials for comments made on the internet about the school officials. In Doninger v. Niehoff, the 2nd District Court of Appeals held that the school officials were within their rights to discipline a student for comments made on her blog about the school officials by prohibiting her from running for student council in the next election (she was already an officer). The rational was the “disruption” the comments could cause at the school. The comments at issue were (1) calling the school officials “douchebags,” and (2) encouraging students to email the officials to protest the school’s cancelling of an annual event which she worked very hard to organize. This hardly seems like she was attempting to incite a riot or promote criminal activity. What it sounds like to me is ineffective school officials flaunting their authority and striking out at a high school student – for the simple reason that they could. The discipline was not an attempt to prevent a disruption, that was caused when the school officials cancelled the event, the  so-called discipline was simply an act of revenge.

What is most troubling in this case is that the three-judge panel (which incidentally included Sotomayor) actually stated: “vulgar or offensive speech — speech that an adult making a political point might have a constitutional right to employ — may legitimately give rise to disciplinary action by a school.” Clearly, the judges are aware of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the judges believe that minors who attend public school have no rights under it.  Why would minors be treated any differently than adults in this type of situation? It is the speech, not the speaker that should be the focus of the inquiry.

What is the real lesson here? In this case, what the school officials have taught these students is that the government (school officials and the court system) can arbitrarily ignore the rights granted to individuals in the Constitution and that the best way to handle disagreements is to get revenge. The students here are learning that there is no right of free speech for them. They are learning that there really is a big brother. I’m ashamed of the school officials and disappointed in the judges. This girl should be given an award for caring so much about school events and school government that she was willing to speak out passionately and seek redress for what she viewed as an unfair act by the officials. After what she’s been through, I doubt she’ll believe she can make a difference. (Either that, or she’ll wind up going to law school.) I think the irony that the punishment was to prevent her from participating in school government is lost on the school officials and judges in this case. Maybe they should take a remedial class in Government 101.

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