On Wednesday, KYW News Radio reported a very interesting free speech case involving a high school senior and his principal:
A federal appeals court in Philadelphia is pondering whether a high school was right to suspend and threaten other punishment against a senior in the western Pennsylvania town of Hermitage in the Mercer County school district who created a fake Myspace page meant to ridicule his principal.
Vic Volchak, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, is pressing for damages to be paid by the school district.
According to reports, Layshock was disgruntled because the school forgot to acknowledge his birthday. Although I haven’t read the actual Myspace posts, news sources such as the Inquirer report that Layshock “made fun of the principal’s large build and implied that he drank”.
KWY reported that Layshock also stated on the Myspace page that his principal smoked marijuana.
The posts were written outside of school on his grandmother’s home computer.
When school administrators found out, Layshock was suspended for 10 days, banned from after-school activities, and transferred to an alternative education program.
On Wednesday, when I first heard this reported on KYW, I knew it would make a great critical thinking activity in my 11th grade English classes.
I immediately printed out a hard copy of the article from KYW’s website and made copies for my students. Once a week I bring in an editorial or op-ed from a major newspaper, and have my students read and analyze it. They are required to identify the thesis statement and supporting arguments, and then explain whether they agree or disagree with the writer. I knew the Justin Layshock free speech case would make a great topic.
I used the article with them this morning. The lesson went extremely well. We talked about free speech and whether Layshock crossed the line. I asked students to write down their opinions and answer two questions:
#1. Was the school’s punishment of Layshock too harsh?
#2. Should students have the right to make fun of their principals on the internet outside of school?
Question #1 was a landslide in favor of Layshock. 61 out of 62 students insisted the punishment was too harsh. One student wrote, “I think the student is protected by the freedom of speech and the school went too far. We are able to talk about the president and other national leaders, so why can’t we talk about a principal? I believe that a 10 day suspension is too much . . .”
Another student wrote, “The punishment was too harsh. They should’ve just gave him a detention. It was a joke and he was just trying to have some fun. Everyone knows it was a joke, because obviously kids act like that.”
Question #2 had similar results. 41 out of 62 students believed kids should have the right to make fun of their principals on the internet outside of school. Most argued that it was a free speech issue. Plus, it was off school grounds.
I played devil’s advocate. I explained that defamation of character is not free speech. I also explained slander and libel—that purposely misrepresenting someone in order to harm their reputation is against the law.
Most students didn’t see how “making fun” of a principal was slanderous. They sided with the ACLU: Layshock’s offensive posts about his principal were just a simple parody.
I found this quite interesting. I brought up the Don Imus incident from the spring of 2007, when he called the members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hoes”. He was just joking, I told them. Making fun.
Several of my students objected. Imus was different, they argued. His comments were about race.
This is when our conversation turned to the issue of double-standards, and whether or not they exist in America. We talked about things you’re allowed to “make fun of,” and things you are not. Race, sexuality and gender are off limits, we all agreed. You can’t make fun of them. You can’t “parody” them.
What can you “parody”? You’re average over-weight principal, I guess. You can “make fun” of his large build. You can call him a drunk and a pot smoker, even though these statements are completely fabricated. Sure, it might ruin his reputation, but if you do it off school grounds, it’s okay.
Several of my students began to see the other side of the argument. One wrote, “That student [Layshock] doesn’t know what his principal does when he goes home. What that student said could have caused his principal to get fired. The student is destroying the principal’s reputation.”
Another wrote, “It doesn’t matter where it takes place. You could get in trouble and have to pay the consequences. The student is giving his principal a bad reputation.”
The lesson on Layshock and free speech was interesting and well received. I could see the wheels turning in my students’ heads, could smell the wood smoke burning between their ears.
In the end, their viewpoints on the Layshock case didn’t matter. What did was the fact that they could see BOTH sides of the argument, and understand how to think critically about the world around them.