I am breaking one of the rules on leads that I teach here — starting with some variation of “Webster’s dictionary defines…” is one of the older schticks out there, and it shows its age. But I thought I’d get that out of the way before jumping into the real reason for this post.
“Inappropriate” has no place in modern law and policy. Put simply by Supreme Court Justice Harlan, “it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric” (Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25, 1971).
The word reared its inappropriate head most recently in a Lodi (CA) Unified School District board policy banning social media posts deemed “inappropriate” by administrators. The policy, as covered by the Student Press Law Center, is being protested by students who are crying censorship. The policy applies to students participating in athletics as well as extracurricular activities, including the student newspaper.
California has historically been one of the most student-speech protective states in the country. The state legislature passed a statute protecting the freedom of student expression well before the Hazelwood case of 1988 led a variety of other states to attempt to do the same (few succeeded). The wording of California’s law gives schools the wiggle room to pair regulations with extracurricular activity — hence Lodi’s application to athletics and clubs, but not the student body as a whole.
Regardless, censorship is censorship. Even Lodi’s administrators recognize it — Bear Creek Principal Bill Atterberry said, “Because of the language, there might be some trampling of student First Amendment rights… [b]ut until that’s resolved, safety comes first.”
We get it, cyberbullying = bad. But the word “inappropriate” has the potential to encompass so much more than bullying speech. What happens if a coach decides that a student’s Facebook post on a political issue is “inappropriate” because it doesn’t agree with the coach? What happens if the principal believes a student journalist’s tweet is “inappropriate” because it criticizes school policy?
How about the word “boobies?” Is that inappropriate? The Third Circuit doesn’t think so.
On the other side of the country, an en banc Third Circuit determined a Pennsylvania school cannot censor speech simply because it “has the potential to offend.” In a 9-5 decision, the court sided with a group of students who were banned from wearing “I (heart) Boobies” bracelets in support of breast cancer awareness and research.
“Schools cannot avoid teaching our citizens-in-training how to appropriately navigate the ‘marketplace of ideas,’” wrote Circuit Court Judge D. Brooks Smith in the majority opinion. “Just because letting in one idea might invite even more difficult judgment calls about other ideas cannot justify suppressing speech of genuine social value.”
I would not be shocked or surprised if some of those Easton Area School District students claiming First Amendment protection wore the bracelets simply for the word “boobies” (cue giggle). They may be citizens-in-training, but they’re also teenagers, and teenagers mature at different rates. That doesn’t make their argument any less valid. It’s a message about an important social and medical issue, one that many of their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, sisters and friends will face (as well as the menfolk in their lives, whose statistically lower rates of breast cancer do not make them any less real).
The fact that this case made it into federal courts shows that someone felt the word “boobies” was offensive. Thousands of dollars in legal fees later, the Third Circuit says the message isn’t. Lodi Unified School District wants to ban speech that’s “inappropriate.” It’s a lawsuit waiting to be filed.
Cruelty in online speech is a real problem. Anonymity combined with instant dissemination make it far too easy to speak in haste without the crucial reflection time that those of us in the pre-social media days had to ask “does this need to be said? Does it need to said by me? Does it need to be said by me now?”
But using vague terms like “inappropriate” are not the way to reduce cyberbullying. It raises the specter of viewpoint discrimination, an “enclave of totalitarianism,” a “pall of orthodoxy” over the academic environment. The intentions may be good, but the process is not.
“Inappropriate.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 6 Aug. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inappropriate>.