Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Avery’s Midterm Exam - Civics for Douchebags
As big bad school nightmares go, everyone has the one where you sleep through the alarm and miss the big exam. And everyone has the one where you’re the only kid naked at the class assembly. But how about the one where you call the superintendent a “douchebag” on your blog and it ends up being debated in federal court? That’s the personal nightmare of seventeen-year-old Avery Doninger, whose case came up this week before the justices of the US Second Circuit.
Avery, her mother and her grandmother came to the imposing new Moynihan building yesterday to watch her attorney, Jon Schoenhorn, argue her case before three august lady justices. On the surface, what’s at stake is Avery’s claim to the office of secretary of her class, the senior class at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Connecticut. But the leviathan below the surface is the First Amendment, and a student’s right to say what she wants on her own blog with her own computer from her own home.
Last April, school administrators moved to cancel “Jamfest,” a battle of the bands Avery had been organizing. On her blog that evening, her post read “Jamfest is canceled due to douchebags in central office.” Very little came of it until a few days later when the son of Superintendent Paula Schwartz found the posting while trolling the internet on behalf of his mother. (If a tree falls in cyberspace, it doesn’t make a sound until someone Googles it.) Avery won the class election last spring with write-in ballots, but school officials withheld her right to serve.
Avery is a sharp kid, a good kid, not the “Bong hits for Jesus” kind of troublemaker or the kind of kid you’d expect to use the term “douchebag” (she spells it as one word) in polite company. This, of course, is part of the point. A blog is more like a diary than a bulletin board, but in the world of the internet, any particular blog is just as accessible as a bulletin board. And the test of whether any particular “speech” is likely to be seen or heard on school property is a distinction that no longer differentiates.
As Avery’s School Board sees it, (and Judge Kravitz of the New Haven District Court agreed), serving on student council is a privilege, not a right, and school officials have a duty to pick and choose candidates with exemplary modes of behavior and decorum. (Never mind the fact that another student who referred to the superintendent as a “dirty whore” was given an award and lauded for citizenship.)
Avery sat quietly in her sensible skirt and flats while Schoenhorn argued passionately on her behalf. There was lively cross examination as the judges considered whether “douchebag” might be vulgar, obscene, or just offensive; and whether Avery had been inciting her classmates to disruptive behavior. More than awed, Avery was justifiably amused by the proceedings; she felt more troubled by her mother’s visible distress, than by the opposing lawyer’s claims.
This was the last case to be heard this Tuesday, and discussion ranged far beyond the allotted time. “What if Avery had said, ‘Kill the principal,’” one justice asked. “What if there were no rules on what a student could say?” But over time the arguments boiled down to two salient issues. One, offensive language can clearly be controlled on school grounds, but can’t possibly be prohibited everywhere. In this case, the internet has to be a place where free speech is allowed. Two, speech that is disruptive to the educational environment can be limited, even off school grounds, but Avery’s blog entries seem to have been only mildly disruptive, and probably justifiably so.
Avery’s final year of primary education is nearly three-quarters finished, and her sights are set on her first year in the free world. She may go to college in Boston, she may spend a year or two in Americorps. Avery and her supporters were in court yesterday for the principle, not the principal.
If this injunction is denied and she doesn’t speak before her class at commencement this spring, it’s clearly not the end of the world, and that might be just as well. We’ve all had that dream where we’re standing at the podium and our entire high school class is before us... Still, for Avery, nightmares do come true; and they’re not necessarily all that bad.
For more detailed information, and plenty of attitude, see Andy Thibault's blog - Cool Justice Report