Friday, August 12, 2011

Free Speech Victory For Teen Girls

A judge has ruled in favor of two girls who had been punished by their school for posting suggestive pictures on MySpace during the summer (Daily Mail Reporter). U.S District Judge Philip Simon ruled that an Indiana school district violated the girls’ First Amendment rights by punishing them for posting sexually suggestive photos on MySpace. However, he delayed his decision on whether to award damages while awaiting a ruling in a difference case before the 7th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the teens in October 2009, claiming the district improperly banned the girls from extracurricular activities even though their behavior had not involved the school. Furthermore, the school humiliated the girls by forcing them to apologize to an all-male coaches' board and then required them to undergo counseling [for their own good?] after the photographs were circulated at school.

Schools may punish students for activities that occur outside of school if they can prove that the actions were disruptive to the school or posed a danger to its staff or students, according to a Supreme Court ruling. In this case, the girls had reason to believe that their actions would never be discovered by the school as the privacy settings on their MySpace pages had been set so that only their friends could see the photos.

While the girls hopefully learned a valuable lesson about trust (and who not to) as well as the risks of posting anything onto the internet, even with supposed security protections, they certainly should not have been punished for their actions, especially not by their school.

The school’s actions against the girls occurred after a parent, who obtained copies of the photos (from one of the trusted friends?) showed them to school Superintendent Steve Darnell and complained they were disrupting the volleyball team. The principal then suspended the girls from volleyball, choir and cheerleading for the year.

Even if the volleyball team was disrupted by gossip or name-calling stemming from the incident, it is the problem of the entire team and the coach. If the team was “disrupted” by their participation in an unpopular political protest or because they dressed like goths, the school would have been much less likely to punish the girls, because our society has zero tolerance for overt expressions of teenage sexuality.

Indeed, the overreaction by the school and the district reflect the irrational, Puritanical and teen-sex-phobic values that are so common in U.S. culture. The school’s athletic code even states explicitly that students may be punished for behavior on or off campus that disrupts the “moral” environment on campus.

Teens do think about sex. Some of them even have sex and usually without catching STDs or getting pregnant. In fact, unplanned pregnancy rates among teens are at an all-time low and are much lower than the unplanned pregnancy rates for women in the 30s and 40s.

The courts refreshingly brought a level of sanity back to the discourse, with Judge Simon saying that the photographs were not obscene under Indiana law and were intended to be humorous. He also ruled that the district's discipline policy was ‘so vague and overbroad as to violate the Constitution.

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