What about the First Amendment?

Tracie Egan Morrissey was extremely upset (rightfully so, I guess) about a rash of racist and hate-filled tweets that followed Barack Obama’s re-election last Tuesday, some of them from high school students. In a follow-up post on Friday, Morrissey displayed a number of the tweets from high-schoolers (identified by name and school), reported on her efforts to urge administrators at their high schools to punish the students for violating the student code of conduct or some such, and reported on the responses (or non-responses) of school officials. Katy Waldman at Slate wrote a take-down of  these efforts, pointing out that teenagers think, say, and do stupid things all the time; while calling attention to the tweets is fair game, trying to have them punished for them seemed “petty and vindictive.”

Worse, Morrissey’s stunt ignores the First Amendment. Most of the tweeters she identifies attend public school, so I am not sure on what basis a school should be able to punish these students or why she believes urging them to do so is a good idea. The scope of student speech is ever-narrowing, particularly on-line speech, which neither courts nor school administrators seem to understand. But none of the tweets that Morrissey describes should fall within the ambit of school regulation. There is no indication they were sent during school hours or that they were directed to the school; the students were talking to the public at large, engaging (however stupidly) in the broader public dialogue. Schools should be encouraging that engagement. And while we hope schools educate their students about the need for civil discourse, it is not and should not be their role to police students outside the school walls. Similarly, school “codes of conduct” are not intended to control student conduct 24/7. I would be quite troubled if any of the schools tried to do so or if a court allowed them to.

This also makes Morrissey’s piece troublingly demogogic. She is attempting to shame school officials to drastically expand their authority in a way that should raise First Amendment alarms, to shame school administrators for not violating the First Amendment rights of their students, and to set the students up to have their rights violated by over-officious school officials.

Finally, a word to the student authors (as well as everyone else saying stupid things on Twitter or anyplace else on the interwebs): Your account was not hacked, so just stop. I will defend to the death your right to air your insipid thoughts in a visible public forum 140 characters at a time. But if you go there, own what you say and let the chips fall where they may.

You may also like...

8 Responses

  1. David says:

    Without exactly defending Morrissey’s actions, I am unclear on how they violated the First Amendment. You seem to suggest that Morrissey’s reports to school administrators directly went against the First Amendment. While there may be a serious question of journalistic ethics, Morrissey is a private citizen not affiliated with amy government entity. If school administrators were to pursue discipline against the students, they would be acting on behalf of local government, and that would certainly have First Amendment implications.

  2. She’s not violating the First Amendment; the schools would if they punish the students, which is what she is encouraging.

  3. Dave Hoffman says:

    I thought she was encouraging the schools to educate the students, not discipline them.

  4. Maybe you’re right. I read the constant references to the schools’ codes of conduct, etc., as calling for more-forceful responses.

  5. PrometheeFeu says:

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that this is not necessarily all racism that she is talking about. For instance, GWB was often compared to a “monkey”. Even the use of the “n-word” isn’t necessarily racist in the same way that “bitch” or “jerk” aren’t necessarily sexist despite being gendered insults. It may simply be the most violent insult that the tweeters could find to hurl at Obama. (Of course, I’m sure some are racially motivated) In both cases, there is a historical and social context which means that those words do refer to the specter of racism. But then again, those are teenagers whose maturity leads them to respond to the election results by hurling insults. I doubt they thought about what they said at all.

  6. AYY says:

    When I read the article I thought that when Morrissey was in high school. she was probably the one who reminded the teacher that she hadn’t collected the homework.
    I mean where does she get off contacting the schools? No one appointed her to do anything like that.

    I guess the point of focusing on a few isolated tweets by teenagers who didn’t even vote, is to suggest that since a few teenagers sent out those tweets, anyone who voted against Obama is a racist. That’s not compelling to me, but then maybe that logic holds sway with her target audience.

  7. Dave: By the way, even if you’re right that Morrissey was calling on the schools to educate the students, I am just as disturbed by her call and by the notion that it is the school’s authority to do that in direct response to what the students did on their own time and space. As a parent, I would strongly object if the school attempted to re-educate my child for his public, non-school expression.

    AYY: As much as I don’t like her post, there is no way to read this as suggesting that anyone who voted for Romney is racist. She is saying that people who call the President a “monkey” or worse and call for his murder in the course of decrying the election result might be racists. Which is probably a fair conclusion.

  8. Eric Hodgdon says:

    Who defines the word racist and racism?

    Webster’s Collegiate?

    Those words are thrown around like confetti, are inserted in statements as though their meanings are universally known, words for any occasion – daggers aimed at white people exclusively.