Students’ freedom of speech needs to be protected

On Jan. 19 and 20, a Soldotna Stars high school hockey senior captain posted two tweets on his personal Twitter account that created a social media controversy.

The first tweet read, “3 things I hate. Liberals, f———, and Alaska natives.” (The omitted word is a derogatory term for homosexuals.)

The second tweet read, “Inauguration Day … time to take the libtard out of office and make the White House white again.”

Since then, the posts have been deleted and the Soldotna teen has been suspended from the team. As far as consequences like suspension, Soldotna High Principal Tony Graham has declined to say what actions have been taken, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. However, he did say this:

“…Hate filled, racist, and disparaging remarks run counter to the mission of the KPBSD, our schools, and our athletic programs, and will not be tolerated.

“We want you to know that the school district and SoHi administration are addressing this. We welcome constructive discussions. Conversations about the appropriate use of social media will continue with our students and athletes.”

But such a situation raises questions. Should what teens say outside of school affect their position within school and sports, especially on a personal social media account that’s not attempting to pose as the school’s opinion? Should an individual member’s expressed opinions hold such a position of influence that if they are counter to the team’s overall message, it is a threat to the team as a whole?

Possibly the most important question of all, how much should a government establishment like a school be able to limit free speech, no matter how hateful?

It is easy to understand why schools would want to limit such opinions — especially from athletes, who are encountering players from other teams with different ethnicities, sexual orientations and political positions. Sports players oftentimes hold a higher position in the social hierarchy of high school and forget that what they say can have an effect on their peers. And sports can become quickly political and high risk for conflict as teams encounter others from different districts and towns.

In American schools, team sports can play such a large role in education that it can seem like the captains are the main representatives of the school themselves. It’s easy to think so, with smiling pictures of players shining bright in many schools’ hallways. However, I would argue the importance of not letting sports positions hold such weight that players’ outside opinions (including those expressed on social media) would affect the school, or the school affect theirs.

It cannot be forgotten that students are first individuals, and schools cannot overstep their boundaries. Students must be able to express unpopular opinions, as protected under the First Amendment. Even within school walls, much of student expression is protected constitutionally.

In the Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) case, where the Tinker siblings wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War and got suspended from school, the Supreme Court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” (The Supreme Court also has later admitted there are certain limitations.)

One of the siblings, Mary Beth Tinker (who at the time was 13 years old), now travels nearly 50 years later across the United States to schools speaking on the importance of student speech rights. “The digital age, with its wonderful capacity to democratize speech, is so important to students’ rights, but also carries new and interesting threats to students’ rights,” she says.

Some states have created laws to limit digital speech. The North Carolina legislature enacted a law in December 2012 intended to protect teachers from being cyber bullied by prohibiting online comments meant to “intimidate or torment.” But such laws, with vague language, can give schools an excuse to punish and shut down students for criticizing poor conditions. Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law, says, “You can’t equate online speech created on personal time with in-class speech, and it’s dangerous to try. Schools are so prone to censor and intimidate whistleblowers who complain about school conditions on school time. Students absolutely must have some safe space where they can complain when schools are dirty, dangerous, or overcrowded, without fear that the long arm of school discipline will reach out and grab them.”

The idea of separation between what an individual does within and outside of school is important to protect a student. Separation is essential to American society as a whole, with our system structured so that Church and State are divided to protect an individual’s religious freedom. So how can schools teach the importance of separation without also first upholding it themselves? So the next time a teenager steps off those school pavement steps, sneakers smacking, remember they also are stepping off into their own personal liberty and freedom.

Tara Hueper writes that she is an artist, writer and a 12th-grade student at Homer Flex. She has lived in Homer for 17 years.