Why I hate school censorship

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I’ve devoted a substantial portion of my professional life as a First Amendment expert to reading, writing and lecturing about student-speech issues. I like nothing better than speaking to groups of public school students, teachers, principals and others about stories of student censorship. Kids particularly love to hear the tribulations of student litigants who faced suspension for various forms of expression.

Several people have asked me through the years why I hold such a passion for student speech. Part of the reason is quite personal, dating back (longer than I’d like to admit) to an incident in my high school years in Tennessee.

Sitting in class before the teachers’ lectures began, we students regularly bantered about a variety of subjects — often sports, music or latest school gossip. The subject turned to the NBA playoffs that year, in which much to my dismay the Boston Celtics were putting together an incredibly impressive season. I said (too loudly, I admit): “The Celtics suck!”

The teacher, who was not a big fan of mine, promptly gave me a demerit — under the hoity-toity system of punishment at my school. The penalty seemed outrageous to me, outrageous because it was excessive. But worse, the teacher had singled me out for punishment. One of my friends and classmates a few days earlier had dropped the “F-bomb” in class and received no punishment. Zero. None.

In legal terms, I had received disparate treatment. I believed I was the victim of selective enforcement.

Unfortunately for me, I had no First Amendment leg to stand on, no constitutional recourse, as I was attending a private school. The First and 14th Amendments protect individuals only from government infringements of speech and due process of law, not infringements by private entities or actors.

But the seeming unfairness of the punishment remained embedded in my mind, compounded by the fact that the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship.

I learned several life lessons from that incident:

  1. Some authority figures do not act fairly.
  2. At times it is far better to keep your mouth shut.
  3. Most important, censorship sucks.

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