Missouri: Apologies to Government Leaders … and Student Speech

There’s an amazing story out of Kansas Missouri.*

A high school student criticized the Governor in a Tweet.

She was doing what any American has the constitutional right to do: criticize her government without punishment. The right is embodied in the First Amendment. It has been clarified by dozens of Supreme Court decision that say, if the First Amendment means anything, it means that Americans are free to criticize their elected officials. That right ensures free and fair debate before elections and respects the freedom of people to speak their mind in a free nation.

The Governor’s office notified her school. Her school gave her an assignment: write an apology by Monday.

Under one line of free speech jurisprudence, this assignment is ridiculously unconstitutional. You can’t force people to apologize for criticizing elected officials. It is a content-based restriction of the worst kind–a viewpoint-based restriction, targeting core political speech of a dissenter. If governments could go around making everyone write apologies for criticizing the President, every journalist at Fox News would have homework from now till the end of the Obama administration. (“I am sorry I called the President a socialist. I am sorry I said so many mean things about Obamacare … I mean Health Care Reform. I am sorry I was mean about Rahm Emanuel …”)

But there’s another line of cases, and this line has to do with the power of schools to control the speech of students. This power is fairly broad; schools can punish students (with detentions, for example) for speaking out of turn in class and (with bad grades, for example) for writing poorly. They can punish speech that causes disruptions. Schools need to educate and maintain order, but students are citizens with free speech rights.

The most famous cases about punishing student speech include the Bong Hits for Jesus case and Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District. The Supreme Court found that political speech, like wearing an armband to protest the Vietnam War in Tinker, received greater protection that speech promoting drug use in the Bong Hits case.

This matter looks a lot more like Tinker for that reason alone.

Plus, schools should be teaching the importance of courage, critical thinking, independence, and willingness to challenge authority. By assigning the apology, probably unconstitutionally, and challenging the student to disobey the assignment, the schools is in fact teaching this lesson … only inadvertently.

*The NY Daily News initially made the mistake of situating the story in Kansas. This doesn’t surprise me. While I lived in Nebraska, half of my friends would ask, mistakenly, “How’s Kansas? … or is it Missouri?” This episode is in Missouri.

One thought on “Missouri: Apologies to Government Leaders … and Student Speech

  1. […] Missouri: Apologies to Government Leaders … and Student Speech (ammori.org) […]

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