An F for vulgarity, an A for free speech
There has been both good commentary and handwringing in the education
blogosphere over the
recent decision in A.B. v. State
(Ind.App.2007). For example, see
van 't Hooft
For those of you who are interested, here's my comment on Dave Sherman's post:
Dave, please see
and my online presentation at
In the case you cite,
A.B. v. State (Ind.App.2007), the Greencastle Middle School student
posted the following message on MySpace:
Hey you piece of greencastle sh-t. What
the f-ck do you think of me [now] that you can['t] control me? Huh? Ha ha ha
guess what I'll wear my f-cking piercings all day long and to school and you
can['t] do sh-t about it! Ha ha f-cking ha! Stupid bastard! Oh and kudos to
whomever made this ([I'm] pretty sure I know who). Get a
Here's what the court said:
A.B. openly criticizes Gobert's imposed
school policy on decorative body piercings and forcefully indicates her
displeasure with it. While we have little regard for A.B.'s use of vulgar
epithets, we conclude that her overall message constitutes political speech.
Addressing a state actor, the thrust of A.B.'s expression focuses on explicitly
opposing Gobert's action in enforcing a certain school policy.
court also found insufficient harm to result from A.B.'s speech
the State failed to produce any
evidence that A.B.'s expression inflicted particularized harm analogous to
tortuous injury on readily identifiable private interests as required to rebut
A.B.'s claim of political speech.
One of the key aspects of libel is
that you have to prove harm to your reputation. It appears that the court in
this case viewed this as a student spouting off on a school policy issue, which
was well within her rights, and found insufficient harm to the principal's
reputation to warrant a finding of libel.
Dave, you say that you're
worried about this happening to you. Is this any different than a post that
said, "I disagree with Mr. Sherman's policy on piercings? Who does he think he
is? He can't control me. I'm going to do whatever I want and there's nothing he
can do about it. I hate you, Mr. Sherman."?
As you know, you need to
have a thick skin when you're a principal!
Finally, I'll close with some quotes. My favorite school law quote of all
time is the one from the Barnette case:
- Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can
succeed and no republic can survive. - Pres. John F. Kennedy
If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led,
like sheep to the slaughter. - Pres. George Washington
That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for
scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are
not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount
important principles of our government as mere platitudes. - West Virginia
If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't
believe in it at all. - Noam Chomsky
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