Say Vagina, Go To Detention

One of the great things about blogging – much like hanging out in libraries – is that you can discover lots of interesting stuff when you follow the links. Like many other readers, I’ve found the AutoAdmit cyber stalking story pretty compelling and troubling. (Dave tweaks me for my nod to David Lat’s librarian hottie lists. I continue to think that this post falls into a very different category of cyber-jectification, but I’m open to educatin’.) Following various links, from Leiter, through Althouse, to Feministe, I discovered another nugget that I missed in yesterday’s web WaPo: a suburban NY school district suspended three girls for using the word “vagina” in an open-mic reading of (what else?) The Vagina Monologues. Apparently, prior to the performance, the principal had told the 11th graders that they could read the play, but not utter the V-word. Their one-day suspension was therefore framed as punishment for ignoring the principal’s orders. (The principal’s explanation is posted here.) Emil Steiner over the Post gets it right, from my point of view:

Fine, I’m willing to except that cop-out on face value, but if saying “vagina” wasn’t a problem, then why issue an order forbidding it in the first place? Was the school’s objective to teach them that no matter how repressively backwards a rule is, it must be followed blindly? Or maybe its goal was to demonstrate how irony (and/or totalitarianism) works by calling the event an “open mic” and then punishing those with the gall to speak into the said mic openly?

I’m not going to scream First Amendment here because let’s face it: I don’t know the doctrine. (And I can understand that high schools might, in very limited situations, need to regulate speech.) I also suspect that school administrators make similarly stupid decisions all the time – and nobody notices. But geez – did the principal (and note that I don’t name him…what do people think about that decision?) really think that in suburban NY, with three girls who clearly thought this was a worthwhile battle, such silliness would remain a quiet matter?

Actually, I find the story somewhat uplifting. Here we have three girls who appeared to have used excellent judgment both politically (could the girls have found a better chance to score points on both the free speech and feminsim front?) and personally (since, as Steiner says, these girls now have a “kick ass topic for their college essays.”) And I must say that, having read Jill’s compelling and hellish narrative of stalking, the word “uplifting” is about the last thing the AutoAdmit story brings to mind.

By the way, for everyone who found the unnamed victim in the WaPo AutoAdmit story a bit full of herself – the story does suggest that she believes that a Yalie’s failure to garner an offer is akin to a freak of nature (and there is a suggestion, in Althouse comments at least, that she might be a 1L…which makes her job search story somewhat less exceptional) – read Jill’s post. Her story is far more powerful.

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9 Responses

  1. Howard Wasserman says:

    The high school administration is using the government’s classic (although usually rejected) rhetorical trick: “You weren’t punished for what you said, but for disobeying an order or a rule.” But in all such cases, the point of the First Amendment is that the government cannot impose the rule or make the order in the first place.

    Dan’s instinct is correct, however, that high schools have a tremendous amount of leeway in controlling student speech within school-sponsored events, especially speech of a sexual nature. In 1987’s Fraser v. Bethel School Dist., the Court found no violation in the suspension of a student who made a student-government nomination speech loaded with sexual double entendres. This case would seem to fall in that same category if there were a lawsuit. But this may be an example of how the public outrage directed at administrative stupidity achieves more than a First Amendment lawsuit.

    What is disturbing about this story, actually, is the way the administration attempted to have it both ways in a manner that ignores meaning, context, and, ultimately, educational value:

    a) “Sure, you can do the reading”–even though the content of the show as a whole is inconsistent with the school’s supposed concern about not wanting sexually themed material. See how progressive we are? But:

    b) “You cannot use a central word in the text”–thus ripping much of the power and meaning out of what we have so-graciously allowed you to read.

  2. Jack S. says:

    I can only comment on the last part of your post (which kind of mixes two different stories). Character assassination has become a common practice due to the internet where it can be done anonymously. We all hope that we are not a victim to it.

    With that said, in the more general scope of interviewing top law students for the top firms I can see where some of the top students may be dumbfounded by the process. I had dinner with a top student at a tier 1 school along with a group of other candidates for a top 20 firm. This individual’s attitude and demeanor was lacking in basic social conversation skills and courtesy. The person had a prima donna, I’m better than you and know more than you, sort of attitude that while subtly presented had the effect of completely rubbing people the wrong way very quickly.

    This individual was confused as to why several call backs had resulted in rejections. After the dinner I had no question as to why this had occurred. While this may not apply to the case of what occurred on AutoAdmit (which I in no way condone), top students having trouble in the interviewing process need to take a step back and ask them seriously and honestly why that is occurring.

    As smart as a candidate may be, no one wants to work with an individual who lacks respect for their peers, subordinates and superiors.

  3. I am a student at John Jay High School and a friend of the three girls. I sent this letter out the night of the open mic night:

    This letter was sent to every member of the school; had it not have been sent, none of this publicity, most likely, would have happened.

  4. Joe Baby says:

    Students don’t shed their 1st Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate, but neither is that right unfettered.

    If it’s so vital to free speech for students to say the word “vagina,” I’m wondering what the hell is being taught. At least the Tinker case was about an anti-war protest.

    They used to teach Latin in public schools. Now school administrators have to spend time preventing/responding to this kind of crap.

  5. gwen says:

    If it’s so vital to free speech for students to say the word “vagina,” I’m wondering what the hell is being taught.

    The context is The Vagina Monologues: what’s being taught is an understanding of the lives of women and an approach to the female body and female sexuality that focuses on celebration and not shame. [And obviously, telling girls that merely saying the word vagina – which is the neutral word for female genitalia – is obscene runs counter to that lesson]. I’m not sure why you think there’s a more urgent need for young girls to understand Latin than for them to understand that their bodies are not sources of shame and disgust.

  6. m says:

    This just isn’t a feminist issue….if they had performed a play about male organs, the reaction almost certainly been the same. It’s about sexual content, not gender.

    There’s a controversy brewing over the mentioning of “scrotum” in children’s books too.

  7. Obvious Dumbhead says:

    How about the fact that the Vagina Monologues is obscene and the fact that no boys may read it is sexist? The ability to say the word vagina is a trivial issue.

  8. gwen says:

    How about the fact that the Vagina Monologues is obscene and the fact that no boys may read it is sexist? The ability to say the word vagina is a trivial issue.

    Well, firstly, the “obscenity” of The Vagina Monologues is not the issue because the school had already approved the children’s performance of the play. The objection was to the word. So no, it’s not a trivial issue, it is the issue. And secondly – “the fact that no boys may read it is sexist?” What? Is there a ban I’m unaware of, whereby boys can’t go out and buy themselves a copy of the Vagina Monologues if they want to? And read it, and understand it, and think about it? In the same way that generations of women have gone out and engaged with books and plays and films about the lives of men and the experiences of men, in which women are peripheral or non-existent? Or are you arguing that the fact there are no male roles in a play that is about women is inherently sexist? Why? If I was writing a play about male experience – that is, not just about men but about the experience of masculinity – the characters would be men. The Vagina Monologues is about the experience of women as women, the experience of femininity. Yes, it has women in it! That’s not sexist – unless you think the bare fact that there’s one play out there that doesn’t focus on male experience as the central human experience is just-so-sexist and oppressive. In which case, you may not be the person entitled to be hurling accusations of sexist bias.

  9. adrian says:

    A few things about the school’s censorship:

    1. In Tinker, the Court said that schools must tolerate student speech unless it creates a disruption.

    2. But in Fraser, the Court said that schools do not need to tolerate “obscene” speech. The word “vagina” would probably not qualify.

    3. But in Kuhlmeier, the Court said that if a school is sponsoring the speech, the school has broad leeway to censor speech. From the limited facts above, this would probably fall under that category, so the school would probably win a legal battle.

    4. The Court just heard a case on March 19th (Morse v. Frederick) that could change the entire analysis.

    5. I know this is a gross oversimplification of the case holdings, but I’m a busy guy.