If you are part of education circles, then by now you have probably seen the viral photo of a group of boys giving what appears to be the Nazi “Sieg Heil!” salute. When the picture first emerged the superintendent of the school district, Lori Mueller pledged to address the incident:
The photo of students posted to #BarabooProud is not reflective of the educational values and beliefs of the School District of Baraboo. The District will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address.
However, their investigation has now concluded, and Mueller is singing a different tune about the role of the district in disciplining the students. Claiming in a letter that “because of students’ First Amendment rights, the district is not in a position to punish the students…”
Whether you believe the boys should face further punishment or not, Mueller’s statement is false. As many people have learned the hard way over the last couple of years, freedom of speech protects you from the government, not your employer, not the internet, and not your school. No, not even your public school.
The first amendment does not stop a school from punishing students for their actions. This is not a matter of opinion. The federal courts have set this as a legal precedent and reaffirmed it over and over again. Schools have legally punished students for speech at school, speech at home, and even speech online.
As for the case in question, the school if they so choose, would be well within their rights to punish the students. The school district claims the boys were not on school property or at a school-sanctioned event which limits their ability to take action, but that really isn’t the case. It’s obviously a prom photo, and whether they were at the physical location of the prom at that point or not is largely irrelevant. Additionally, the caption associated with the photo was “#Barabooproud“. That gives the school district two solid connections to use if they desired to take action. Furthermore, a school giving students’ detention, assigning some special seminar, or taking away dance privileges wouldn’t be a violation of the first amendment in any capacity.
A student was expelled from the University of Alabama for an off-campus, racially charged online post earlier this year and the legality of even that punishment was not widely questioned. K-12 schools routinely discipline students for social media posts particularly if they involve other students or reflect poorly on the school.
This school is under no obligation to punish these boys any further, but their hands are not tied by the constitution. This is a choice they are making and that is how the conversation should be framed.
Freedom of speech is a hotly debated topic these days. It has become something of a fallback position for people wanting to push the boundaries of social norms, and that is their right. However, students should know, that position isn’t always available to them, and schools shouldn’t falsely lead them to believe that it is. Freedom of speech doesn’t equal freedom from consequences, not in schools and not in the workplace. Students should learn that now.