originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 27, 2008
Beaten Into Submission
Avery Doninger called her school administrators "douchebags" on her blog and was banned from student elections. Now she is fighting for freedom of speech in U.S. District Court.
By Jennifer Abel
Connecticut prides itself on being modern and progressive, so if you tell the average school administrator here, "You run your schools like they did in North Carolina way the hell back in 1837," he'll probably be insulted. But if you say this in the Region 10 school district, covering Harwinton and Burlington, there's a slim chance they'll smile and reply:
"Yes, that 1837 case down South involving a schoolmaster who beat a 6-year-old girl badly enough to leave visible marks on her body for two days was, we felt, a student-discipline precedent worth citing in our defense against Avery Doninger's first-amendment lawsuit."
Seriously, they did that. The school's arguments in the suit against Lewis Mills High School principal Karissa Niehoff and Region 10 superintendent Paula Schwartz are a joy to behold when you know the hilariously disturbing contexts Doninger's attorney Jon Schoenhorn discovered surrounding them.
We told you about Doninger last September. She's a senior at Lewis Mills in Burlington, and during her junior year served on the student council and as class secretary. As a council member she helped organize an annual music festival called Jamfest, originally to happen in January but repeatedly cancelled and re-scheduled by the administration, which cited problems with the school's newly constructed auditorium.
"They kept pushing back the date ... to April 28," Doninger said. Then the teacher who was to handle the lights had to cancel. The school wouldn't let a student work the lights even though, Doninger said, one worked part-time doing just that at a Torrington theater. And another thing: "They told us it was the taxpayers' auditorium. ... It belongs to everyone in Region 10, not just the school."
So Doninger and her friends went to the computer lab and sent taxpayers a mass e-mail seeking permission to use the auditorium. The people responded by telling Superintendent Schwartz to let the kids have their concert. And the next day in school:
"Ms. Niehoff said, 'I need to talk to you ... as of now Jamfest is cancelled. ... Mrs. Schwartz is really upset, getting all these calls and e-mails.'"
At home that night Doninger wrote an angry LiveJournal blog post that began "Jamfest is cancelled due to douchebags in [the] central office." When Schwartz learned of the post a week later, she stripped Doninger of her class secretary position and forbade her from running in the forthcoming election. Though Doninger's name wasn't on the ballot, the students wrote it in anyway and Doninger won the election — or would've if the administration had counted her votes. They didn't.
Doninger and her mother sued for reinstatement, and on Aug. 31, Judge Mark Kravitz ruled with the school, arguing that writing something on a publicly available blog is basically the same as shouting it in the classroom, and can be punished accordingly. Schoenhorn filed an appeal which was heard this month at the Second Circuit Court in New York; a verdict's expected within 30 days.
Region 10's attorney Thomas Gerarde did not return calls seeking comment, and school officials never discuss pending litigation, so the school's defense brief will have to speak for itself.
The school says Doninger deserved to lose her secretary position because the douchebag post showed she lacked "good citizenship." What does that entail? The school hasn't specified, but Principal Niehoff, in earlier testimony, said that if Doninger replaced the arguably vulgar term "douchebags" with "jerks," "meanies" or "expletive deleted," she'd face the same consequences. The implication seems to be that "good citizenship" means "never criticize authority."
The brief adds that "the inculcation of the values of good citizenship and civility to public school students is not a recently fashioned mission designed to provide school authorities a license to suppress speech. ... Rather, this mission has been a core of the American fabric for more than 150 years ..."
The first citation after that is from a 19th-century ruling called State v. Pendergrass, which the brief quotes as follows (ellipses are from the original):
"One of the most sacred duties of parents is to train up and qualify their children, for becoming useful and virtuous members of society; ... the teacher is the substitute of the parents ... and in the exercise of these delegated duties is invested with his power."
The defense brief doesn't mention that this case involved a severe beating inflicted upon a little girl in North Carolina. Nor does it mention the violent context of the next cited quote, from the 1859 case Lander v. Seaver: "Language used to stir up disorder or insubordination, or to heap disgrace upon the schoolmaster has always been subject to punishment."
"That case," said Schoenhorn, "was about a Vermont teacher who beat a student at his home ... [the teacher] lost the case. It looks like they didn't even read the cases. If you're gonna cite cases in a brief you'd better read them first so they don't blow up in your face."
So here's where matters stand now: Region 10's administration argues that it has rights of censorship and punishment over everything students write or say, on-campus and off. If the courts agree, no students in the country will be allowed to ever criticize their teachers. And the justification for this includes some pre-Civil War cases where teachers argued for their right to beat the snot out of disobedient students.