Saturday, November 17, 2007

Silenced from the Freedom to Speak

Avery Doninger never thought that calling her school administrators a name on her blog would create such an issue, but yet she finds herself at the center of a First Amendment storm.

By Jessica Gaafar
Sophomore, Crosby High School

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press: or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

For those who haven’t caught on yet, this is the First Amendment in the Constitution, which applies to every citizen in the United States. Basically, as United State citizens we have the right to say what we want as long as we don’t say something that could possibly damage another’s reputation.

Doesn’t this also pertain to students? So why are schools banning students freedom of speech. Students have the right to state their opinion. Students have the right to petition. Students have the right to stand up for what they believe in. Isn’t this what school teaches us? Or is a student’s First Amendment rights checked at the school door?

Avery Doninger was 16 years old and a junior at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, when she was punished for insulting school officials. She is a pretty good student who gets B’s, challenges herself, and takes AP classes. She had been secretary for 3 years in high school and would have been for the fourth year if it were not for the school not allowing her to run. The school’s reasoning is a little more complicated than you think.

It all began with an annual event called Jamfest (like battle of the bands). The school was under construction, so the students were unable to perform in the auditorium. However, instead of performing at another venue they decided to hold off the annual event until the construction was finished so they would be able to utilize the auditorium. Then, just 2 to 3 days before the event took place the school canceled it. Apparently the person in charge of A/V was unavailable. Even though students had a way around this problem, allegedly the school would not allow the show to go on. Avery and some of her friends sent out an email from school to gain community support. The email stated that if you wanted to support the students, you could call the school.

According to Avery, the principal, Karissa Niehoff, was very angry at what they did. Avery said that the principal officially canceled Jamfest, but denies it in court. She went home and around 9:30 that evening she posted the email on her blog and made a comment about school officials – the comment that would change the course of her remaining time at Lewis Mills and would ultimately create a controversial stir around the state, and even the country.

She wrote in her blog at home among other things, “So Jamefest is canceled due to the douche bags in central office.”

When the school found out what she said, her punishment included apologizing, informing her mother about the unsavory comment, and she was barred from running for secretary.

Avery did the first two but didn’t agree with the third part of the punishment. She was ultimately removed from her elected position by the principal, with the approval of Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz and barred from seeking re-election.

“I could have used more sophisticated language and I will in the future,” said Avery, who is now a senior at Lewis Mills. “On the other hand I had the right to say it.”

Wait, something here just doesn’t make sense. How could the school possibly punish Avery for something that was not done on school grounds? Isn’t the school stepping outside its boundary limits? If Avery was at home when the comment was posted then isn’t it the parents job to do the punishment? Schools only have the right to punish a student for acts that are committed on school grounds. Keep in mind, Avery’s statement posed no threat.

If Avery said this in a class or in the hallway at school, or if she even said it directly to an administrator, their punishment would probably be appropriate. But, can public schools really punish Avery or any other students’ for non-illegal behavior off school campus? If Avery’s case becomes a binding precedent, then the answer will be “yes” and schools will be allowed to reach into your homes.

“She made a general comment,” said Lauren Doninger, Avery’s mom. “I think it’s up to me to punish her at home where it took place.”

Ms. Doninger did not like what her daughter wrote but believes she had the right to do it. She believes that Avery was just trying to make things happen. Ms. Doninger said that it was just a general comment because she didn’t call anyone person a name.

Ms. Doninger said that if the school just called her she would have thanked them and talked to Avery and had her take down the rude comment.

In protest of the decision, Avery wore an R.I.P. Democracy t-shirt while her friends wore t-shirts that said “Team Avery” on the front and “Support LSM freedom of speech” on the back, in the days following to a school event. They were going into the auditorium when the principal saw them. Allegedly she yelled at them, asking them to take off the t-shirts.

According to Avery many students and teachers were supportive and on her side. Even though Avery could not run for secretary students decided to support her through a write in campaign.

Local journalist Andy Thibault filed a freedom of information act and got the ballots. When the write-in-ballots were counted, it was clear that Avery had won re-election. However, the school ignored this, not allowing her the position.

“Holding the position of class officer at Lewis Mills is not a right - it is a privilege,” said Beth Duffy, Chairperson of the Region 10 Board of Education in a press release issued on behalf of the Board. They even spelled out the definitions of both “right” and “privilege”.

Chairperson Duffy stated in the press release, “There are many opportunities at Lewis Mills for an intelligent, passionate, determined young lady like Avery to hone her leadership skills. Class secretary was just one of them. I know that both Ms. Niehoff and Mrs. Schwartz would like nothing better than to find an opportunity for Avery to shine in her senior year. I hope that she opens the door to that opportunity.”

In any election, it is against the law to ignore and push aside votes of the people. Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura was re-elected two years ago with a write in campaign. If this happened in a real election there would be serious issues. Isn’t the school setting a bad example for the students?

Ms. Doninger believes that it is an erosion of civil liberties and that the school is wrong because it happened outside the school gate and it was political speech.

Ms. Doninger was praised by a local radio commentator, who called her the mother that told her daughter, “you’re grounded, and we’re going to federal court to file a civil suit.”

Ms. Doninger has said in several interviews that punishment is up to her, especially for something that Avery did at home.

“They can’t reach into my home and punish me,” Avery said. “The next thing you know they’ll be checking to see if I made my bed in the morning.”

Avery understands that what she said was rude but it was her mother’s job to make the call not the school.

According to the school board press release, Avery took her action after Ms. Niehoff had addressed the issue of appropriate behavior of class officers with her that same day. Ms. Niehoff then withdrew her support of Avery’s candidacy only after it was clear that Avery did not understand that her conduct was unbecoming a class officer.

“Our administrators have acted and continue to act in a professional, ethical and responsible manner. We have tried to settle this matter on at least two occasions and have been met with unreasonable demands by the Doningers,” said Chairperson Duffy in the press release. “We will continue to defend the administration as long as necessary. Citing Constitutional rights as protection for bad behavior does that incredible document a grave disservice.”

On Aug. 31, Judge Mark Kravitz ruled in the preliminary ruling that the administration had the right to punish her for her “vulgar and [or] lewd” speech, reasoning that since Doninger wrote something on a website that could be read by people at school, that’s essentially the same as if she’d stood up in class and shouted it. The case is currently on appeal.

In the press release Chairperson Duffy said, “this is an issue of standards. We have high standards for our students in Region 10 - good behavior, strong academic achievement, good sportsmanship and civil behavior to one another. Sometimes students make bad decisions because they are young, inexperienced and impulsive. When that happens, we should attempt to help the student learn from his/her mistake. That was done in this case. When a student repeatedly makes the same bad decision, it is the school’s responsibility to impose consequences. That was also done here. But if our school system backed down on a fair and just consequence for bad behavior, then we would be letting down the other 2859 students in our district and our communities as well. Judge Krawitz recognized that in his ruling. We have high standards in Region 10, and I for one am proud we do.”

It has been the general belief that outside of school, a student can do anything from talking rudely of teachers to getting into fights and schools cannot punish you outside of school grounds.

The case between Avery and the school boils down to whether or not she had the right to use the term “douche-bag” on her private and personal website, that she wrote in while at home and not on school grounds.

Her attorney, mother and other supporters think that the case is pretty cut and dry in that the school did not have the right or authority to take the actions that they did to punish her. The case is in the 2nd Circuit to appeal the denial and continue to seek injunctive relief.

The Doningers are seeking – among other remedies – an apology for civil rights violations, recognition of the write-in victory and sharing the secretary position with the administration-backed candidate.

To Avery the case was originally about getting her secretary position back, but now it is about so much more.

“Now it is about the application of the Bill of Rights, it is about protecting liberty at the local level in order to have any chance of maintaining it on the highest levels,” said Avery. “It is about the government, in this situation the school, reaching into our homes and monitoring behavior that is not in school and behavior that the Constitution protects.”

Avery and her case have become a cause for the First Amendment Rights of students. If you were to Google her name, all kinds of things show up, for pages and pages. A simple search will bring up blogs from people who support her to blogs from people who find this to be of no importance. People from all over the country are making comments, stating their opinions, and discussing the case. There are even blogs dedicated to her, and a group on the popular Facebook network. Journalists from all over New England recently held a fundraiser for her legal fund, and her mother has reached out to others via the Internet.

Maybe she’s overexposed, or perhaps the issue isn’t talked about enough. But it does put you into a position where you have to ask yourself, where does a student’s freedom of speech end, and how far can the school system reach into your homes?

However the case shakes, Avery is really making an impact on people. It’s like they say, “Even the smallest people can change the world.”

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