Georgia School District Inadvertently Begins Teaching Lessons In First Amendment Protections After Viral Photo
from the not-how-this-works dept
There’s this dumb but persistent meme in American culture that somehow the First Amendment simply doesn’t exist within the walls of a public school district. This is patently false. What is true is that there have been very famous court cases that have determined that speech rights for students at school may be slightly curtailed and must face tests over “substantial disruption” of the speech in question in order to have it limited. Named after the plaintiff in that cited case, the “Tinker test” essentially demands that schools not simply dislike a student’s speech or the discomfort that comes from it, but instead must be able to demonstrate that such speech is disruptive to the school and students broadly. The facts of that case, for instance, dealt with students being suspended for wearing anti-war armbands. Those suspensions were seen as a violation of the students’ First Amendment rights, because obviously.
Subsequent cases, such as Morse v. Frederick, have very slightly and narrowly expanded the limitations on speech within schools. In this case, for instance, a student’s speech encouraging the use of illegal drugs was found to be a valid target for school punishment. But, narrow or not, some analysis has worried that cases like this could be used to expand the curtailing of student speech:
By contrast, the Eleventh Circuit extended Morse’s rationale about illegal drugs to the context of student speech that is “construed as a threat of school violence”. Boim, 494 F.3d at 984 (upholding the suspension of a high school student for a story labeled as a “dream” in which she described shooting her math teacher). Moreover, the court concluded that Morse supports the idea that student speech can be regulated where “[in] a school administrator’s professional observation … certain expressions [of student speech] have led to, and therefore could lead to, an unhealthy and potentially unsafe learning environment”.
Disallowing student speech that amounts to threats of violence indeed seems to make sense. That being said, speaking of “an unhealthy and potentially unsafe learning environment”:
This is the first day of school in Paulding County, Georgia. pic.twitter.com/fzdidaAABM
— ????????Black????????Aziz????????aNANsi???????? (@Freeyourmindkid) August 4, 2020
You’d be forgiven if you thought that picture was taken from the Paulding County high school six months ago, with so few masks. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was taken on August 4th, the first day back to school for Paulding County. Whatever your thoughts on whether and how schools should be opening, you really need to go read that entire article from BuzzFeed. The overwhelming impression left is that Paulding County appears to have reopened its schools in as callous and cavalier manner possible while still staying just inside government guidelines. Masks? Sure, if you want, but they’re optional. Distancing? Of course, but we can’t really enforce it in any meaningful way. And overall safety?
North Paulding teachers said they too felt they had no choice but to show up to work, even after a staff member texted colleagues saying she had tested positive for the virus. The staffer had attended planning sessions while exhibiting symptoms, one teacher said.
She did not attend school after testing positive. But teachers have heard nothing from the school, they said, which won’t confirm that staff members have tested positive, citing privacy concerns.
The Paulding County School Superintendent, Brian Otott, began reaching out to parents to reassure them that what they saw in the viral photo going around Twitter was fine, just fine. It lacked context, you see. Context, one presumes, is another word for safety. Or, if we are to believe Otott, the context is essentially: yes, this is totally happening, but the state said we can operate this way.
Otott claimed in his letter that the pictures were taken out of context to criticize the school’s reopening, saying that the school of more than 2,000 students will look like the images that circulated for brief periods during the day. The conditions were permissible under the Georgia Department of Education’s health recommendations, he said.
This from the same state that has the 6th highest number of total COVID-19 cases, the 11th most total cases per capita, the 4th most total new cases in the last week, and the 6th most new cases per capita in the last week. So, you know, not the state doing the best job in the country by a long shot at containing outbreaks of this virus.
Which perhaps makes sense, actually, since Otott seems chiefly interested in containing not the virus in his school halls, but rather any criticism of his district. Remember that viral photo that kicked off this discussion? Well…
At least two students say they have been suspended at North Paulding High School in Georgia for posting photos of crowded hallways that went viral on Twitter.
The photos show students packed into hallways between classes, not appearing to practice social distancing and with few masks visible, amid the coronavirus panic. They went viral after being shared by the account @Freeyourmindkid.
Those suspensions being handed out are five day suspensions and are being levied at violations of school rules around using cell phone cameras without permission. A couple of things to say about that.
First, the removal of a student from a School-sanctioned petri dish of a novel coronavirus feels odd as a punishment. Were it not for the intentions of the Superintendent, it would be damn near heroic as an attempt to save these kids from getting sick.
Second, refer back to my two paragraph throat-clearing above. This isn’t constitutional. Nothing about the students sharing their concerns amounts to a disruption of school, or anything else that would qualify this protected speech for scholastic punishment. Taking a fearful 15 year old student and punishing him or her for their fear is beyond reproach. And, about those school rules for cell phones:
On Wednesday, an intercom announcement at the school from principal Gabe Carmona said any student found criticizing the school on social media could face discipline.
Again, plainly unconstitutional. One wonders why anyone should have faith in a school administration that isn’t even educated enough on the rights of its own students to keep from ignorantly broadcasting its idiocy over school intercoms. Why are these people even allowed to teach children in the best of times, never mind during a pandemic as these kids get herded like cattle to the slaughter through school halls?
While I guess we’ll all get to see what happens in this idiotic school district now, and maybe even learn some lessons from what occurs, I’m generally not of the opinion that we should treat our own children like they were the subjects of some kind of bizarre modern-day Tuskegee test.