The Eighth Circuit recently backed a Missouri High School in a bullying case against students. Lee’s Summit North High School suspended two boys who created a website to “discuss, satirize, and vent” about their classmates. Apparently the website made sexist and racist comments about some of the other students.
Ooohh. I am shocked, SHOCKED to find out that schoolboys make sexist and racist comments about their classmates.
The boys had filed for a preliminary injunction that would stay their 180-day suspension, which was granted by a lower court. But the Eighth Circuit denied the injunction on the grounds that the boys’ website was unlikely to be viewed as protected speech. That’s because their speech caused a “substantial disruption” to the educational environment at the school.
What was the nature of the disruption? Apparently two teachers described the day that the website went viral within the school as the “most disruptive day they had experienced in their careers.”
So, for those playing along at home, your right to protected speech ends approximately at the point that public school teachers can’t establish classroom order over a cacophony of “OMG, did U C this” texts, or something….
The students, Sean and Steve Wilson, put together a website, “NorthPress,” which made fun of classmates. This site was initially shown only to friends, but at some point it went “viral” within the school. According to the Eighth Circuit’s opinion, that’s where the disruptions began:
Conversely, the School District’s witnesses testified the public discovery of NorthPress caused substantial disruption on December 16, 2011. The School District’s computer records from December 16 show numerous Lee’s Summit North computers were used to access or to attempt to access NorthPress. Lee’s Summit North teachers testified they experienced difficulty managing their classes because students were distracted and in some cases upset by NorthPress; at least two teachers described December 16 as one of the most or the most disrupted day of their teaching careers. Lee’s Summit North administrators testified that local media arrived on campus and that parents contacted the school with concerns about safety, bullying, and discrimination, both on December 16 and for some time afterwards. Additionally, Lee’s Summit North administrators expressed concern that the Wilsons’ early return to Lee’s Summit North would cause further disruption and might endanger the Wilsons.
It sounds like it was amateur hour up at Lee’s Summit North. Oh, the horror of students logging into websites instead of paying attention in class. And did you notice the line at the end, that the administrators were afraid for the safety of the Wilson brothers? If the school can’t guarantee the safety of its students, that’s a problem with the school, not a reason to suspend students.
Writing over at FindLaw, Robyn Hagan Cain analogizes the Wilsons’ behavior like this:
This sounds like the day Regina George plastered copies of the Burn Book around the school in Mean Girls. Except the Wilson twins had a website instead of a scrapbook. And their site included racist and sexist content. Otherwise, exactly the same.
Except they didn’t plaster the scrapbook around school, they put it on a website and the teachers couldn’t stop students from checking it out online during school.
The Eighth Circuit analyzed this case under Tinker v. Des Moines, the landmark case that found speech could be curtailed if it interfered with school discipline. In Tinker, students wore armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War.
Here, the students put up offensive content on a website and students accessed it while at school. It seems to me that the court is punishing the Wilson brothers because the teachers couldn’t keep their students off of the internet during the school day.
So, heap scorn on the Wilsons if you want to, but if I had a kid at Lee’s Summit North, I’d be far more worried about the fact that teachers can’t maintain control of their classrooms than I would be that there were a couple of racist or sexist boys at school. There are a lot of websites you wouldn’t want high schoolers looking at during school, but I’d be worried that the administration was evidently overwhelmed by a stupid one started by two kids. I’ll say it again, one of the arguments offered in favor of suspending the boys was that the school administrators couldn’t vouch for their safety while at school.
But this is what happens when you try to stop bullying by punishing children instead of expecting adults to be accountable. ‘Wah wah wahhhhh, “it was the most disruptive day of my career.” What a pathetic job by the adults in the room. The Wilson brothers might be little punks, but little punks shouldn’t be able to take down your whole school with one freaking website.
Mean Boys: Court Rules Against Brothers After Blog Disrupts School [FindLaw]
Wilson v. Lee’s Summit [Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals]