Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Last week, there was major press coverage of Rittman High School officials’ decision to kick a 16-year-old football player off the team and suspend him from school because he wrote a poem criticizing his coach. News outlets like Sports Illustrated, and Fox News, as well as many regional papers, reported the story. I was happy to later read that after reconsideration, the school district – located in Rittman, Ohio – reversed the punishment and let the student back on the team. (In fact, I’d been all set to write a post urging precisely this outcome.)
How schools can and should deal with hostile student speech about school officials is a fascinating issue, one that has become even more prominent with the rise of digital speech, where students often feel less inhibited. This particular speech, however, was not digital. Rather, the student, Nick Andre, wrote a poem for an English composition class, in response to an assignment asking him to focus on something that made him angry. His poem, entitled “Stupid,” referred to the head football coach, whose 25-year-old son served as offensive coordinator and whose high-school son was a member of the team. Andre’s poem mentioned “favoritism” on the team, talking about “the inability to separate being a father and a coach” and “continuously doing what doesn’t work.” After Andre read the poem to his class, the principal suspended him and kicked him off the team on grounds that he wrote a “mean and disrespectful poem about another student and our athletic director/head coach.”
In an article I wrote a few years ago on hostile student speech about school officials, “Badmouthing Authority: Hostile Speech About School Officials and the Limits of School Restrictions,” 19 William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 591 (2011), I observed that such hostile speech basically falls into three main categories: (1) speech that arguably threatens a school official; (2) speech that is primarily vulgar about a school official, and (3) speech that, while expressing non-threatening hostility toward a school official, also expresses a substantive viewpoint about that official’s behavior. I was particularly concerned that schools were too quick to restrict even the third category of student speech when it occurred at school, running the risk of suppressing legitimate student dissent.That seems to be precisely what happened here. Andre’s poem was neither threatening nor vulgar, and it clearly expressed a substantive viewpoint. Yes, the speech was done as part of a school assignment – which typically gives schools more control under Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier – but here, it’s hard to see the legitimate pedagogical basis for this punishment, as Hazelwood requires. Indeed, the English teach specifically asked students to write about something that made them angry – and Andre’s poem was perfectly responsive to that. I’m glad that the school district quickly reversed itself. I was also interested and a bit surprised to read, however, that the football coach stepped down, citing the distraction that resulted from the national attention over Andre’s punishment. For multiple reasons, it seems like the school district would have been much better off had it not overreacted in the first place.