Monday, June 18, 2007

Requa case raises interesting questions

This piece of news is almost a month old at this point, but I've been kicking it around in my head for quite a while now.

It centers around Gregory Requa, a student suspended for 40 days by the Kent School District for his involvement in the making of YouTube video that mocks one of his teachers. The suspension subsequently was upheld by a federal judge.

It's an interesting case as teachers, administrators and our courts grapple with the impact of online speech in the classroom; the pending decision on the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case will provide even more clarity about just how far off campus school officials can go to regulate student speech.

Requa's lawyers tried to make the claim that his suspension infringed on his First Amendment right to free speech, but the Kent School District said his suspension was only for the disruption caused in class in the making of the video: “The video depicted the conduct that was punished,” according to a district spokesperson.

Which leaves me with two questions.
  1. Are they seriously trying to lead us to believe that the Kent School District always gives 40-day suspensions whenever a student makes a hand motion towards his nose (indicating his teacher smells bad), rabbit ears behind his teacher's head, and pelvic thrusting motions at her when she's not looking?
  2. Do the really mean to imply that they would not have suspended Requa had the video only been footage of her cluttered class and shots of her backside, neither of which ostensibly disrupted the class?
Those of you that end up reading the blog with regularity will find that I am a ridiculously ardent defender of student free speech rights -- after all it's how Jim and I came to know each other in the first place -- and decisions such as this one scare me. The judge explained herself this way:

“The court has no difficulty in concluding that one student filming another student standing behind a teacher making ‘rabbit ears’ and pelvic thrusts in her direction, or a student filming the buttocks of a teacher as she bends over in the classroom, constitutes a material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the school.”

While noting that “the ability of students to critique the performance and competence of their teachers is a legitimate and important right,” Pechman said that a classroom devoid of inappropriate behavior is in the public interest.

Regarding the video, Pechman said, “The First Amendment does not extend its coverage to disruptive, in-class activity of this nature.”

While I don't disagree that having respectful and orderly classrooms is important, and I certainly wouldn't want to be the topic of a similar video, I wonder what kind of a precedent this sets for legitimate criticisms.

What if it simply had been footage of a teacher teaching poorly, interspersed with legitimate complaints about the classroom? Would the district acknowledge that with a suspension? Would Pechman strike down that suspension as unconstitutional?

Better yet, what if it had been an flier about what a terrible teacher a particular teacher is, then distributed it off school grounds. Would the district have forgiven such speech?

I seriously question whether they're punishing the speech or the medium.


DrPezz said...

It's interesting to note whether or not the actual filming disrupted the class. Was the filming inspiring the disruptive behavior or was it the norm caught on video?

I watched the video and did not think it was appropriate, but that isn't the point. I feel the district overstepped its bounds with the suspension. The events caught on film were certainly punishable, but I thought the video itself should be seen as free speech.

Again, the real question is whether the filming initiated the behaviors--which would be a disruption--or if the amateur cameraman simply caught typical behavior on video. It doesn't sound as though this was clearly answered.

I hope the courts do not find for the district in the Bong Hits case. The range of district powers must be kept in check.

Nuss said...

I also seriously question the judge's flippant use of the "material and substantial disruption" clause from the Tinker standard. I was always led to believe that was meant to represent something like widespread chaos.

I would hardly classify what happened there a "material and substantial disruption."