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"Douchebags in the Central Office" Censor Student Speech

By Wendy Kaminer     

        Not content to regulate student speech in school, or at events subject to school supervision, administrators are now punishing students for what they say on their own time and their own computers:  Last spring, Avery Doninger, a junior at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Connecticut was punished for insulting school officials in a blog devoted to school issues.  (You can find a full account of the case and my source for this summary, here.)  Angered by a decision to cancel an annual music festival, Doninger had the temerity to criticize the “douchebags in the central office,” exhorting her fellow students to complain to the school superintendent and “piss him off.”  So, demonstrating the accuracy of her assessment of them, school officials retaliated -- first by barring Doninger from running for re-election as class secretary, then barring her supporters from wearing “Team Avery” tee-shirts, and then barring her from serving as class secretary after she was re-elected as a write-in candidate.     
   
        But while the thin-skinned contempt for free speech of school officials is deplorable, (and increasingly familiar,) it’s not quite as distressing as the decision by a federal district court upholding their actions in this case.  Doninger sued the school after her mother failed to persuade officials to consider alternative punishments and provide assurances that the incident would not become part of Avery’s record.

        The district court declined to issue an injunction against the school, holding that even though Doninger posted her comments after school hours, on her home computer, they could be considered “campus speech” simply because she posted them on a blog devoted to school issues, read by other students and administrators.  In other words, Avery was punished for speaking to her intended audience.  Remarkably, the court also found that Doninger had no First Amendment right to run for office, which meant that administrators might be justified in banning her from running, in the interests of civility, a vague and malleable concept that increasing numbers of students are being taught to value more than uncensored political speech. 

        Avery Doninger has appealed to the 2nd Circuit (her case was argued this week.)  Free speech advocates owe her and her family gratitude for their willingness to make a federal case of this.  The more high school and college students submit to the censorious whims of administrators, the fewer will emerge fit for citizenship in a free society.


(CORRECTION, 3/7: Avery's mother, Lauren Doninger, notes that Avery did not post her comments on a blog devoted to school issues:"it was just her personal Live Journal - that was set to 'public.' ")




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