Douchebags and the First Amendment

No, I’m not referring to the faculty listserv here! Rather, this regards the case of Avery Doninger, the Lewis Mills High School student in neighboring Burlington, CT, who called the principal and superintendent “douchbags”[sic] in a Livejournal blog entry. School officials removed her from her position as class secretary, and she and her mother filed a lawsuit against the school district claiming that Avery’s First Amendment rights had been violated. The case is now before the U.S.2nd Court of Appeals and the mother vows to go to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

While I’m in favor of protecting the First Amendment rights of high school students, I can’t help feeling depressed about how low we’ve sunk since the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), involving high school and junior high school students who were expelled for wearing black armbands protesting the Vietnam War to school; and Healy v. James (1972), involving a group of students at our university who were forbidden to start a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Those students were engaged in struggles against war and social injustice. Now the “marketplace of ideas” seems to consist largely of how vulgar and outrageous one can be in a public forum.

While I’ve argued elsewhere that free speech includes freedom to be a jerk, I can’t help wondering whether in the long run Avery is going to regret putting herself in the spotlight. What impact is this having on her applications to college? Does she really want to go down in history as “douchbag [sic] girl”? I guess it’s better than bong hits but not much.

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5 Comments

  1. Dear Knitting Clio,

    Thank you for writing a thoughtful blog on the state of student activism. If I were to look at this case from a very limited perspective, I would be inclined to agree with you. But, peel back the layers just slightly and so much more is revealed.
    The unraveling began when Avery and three other students used a well constructed email to rally the taxpayers to support the students use of the new auditorium. Their effort had an impact and the calls and emails went in to Central Office. This aggravated the administrators. If there had been a punishment for all 4 students at that point I would have thought it was a missed opportunity and a squelching of budding activism – but we wouldn’t be in federal court.
    Avery wrote the blog from our home computer at 9:30 at night. It was not a billboard or a bull horn. It was sophomoric venting by a 16 year old. It was not discovered by the administration until some weeks later and then because the 36 year old son of the superintendent was trolling the Internet for his mother’s name. Aside from the obvious ‘ick’ factor, it is an unfathomable precedent to think that the government in any form will begin to punish non-threatening/violent/predatory online speech.
    The administration had no business punishing Avery for at-home behavior – I was and am capable of managing that discipline. However, I have always cooperated with the school system and I suggested reasonable consequences (for example, not allowing her to attend Jamfest). It is a dangerous precedent to allow any government official access to interfere with parenting.
    While Avery’s post was sophomoric and rude it was political. She was encouraging people to contact officials to create change. I wish that she had begun her career as a political activist with anti-war or poverty protests, but at 16 the issue she cared about was Jamfest. Avery is graduating in June. She has applied for Youth Immersion with Habitat for Humanity for the summer and for Americorps NCCC for a year of service before college. Her motivation is Obama’s education plan that includes asking students to serve. Avery started a Save Darfur Club at Mills and worked hard to help pass the Teach Against Genocide legislation; she testified before the House Education Committee. Her deep commitment to political activism was fomenting when she was 16. Perhaps it sounds overly dramatic, but allowing the reactionary, unconstitutional, and crushing punishment that the administrators wanted to extract may have extinguished her budding sense of power to use the political system. That is not a lesson we can afford to permit any government system to teach. Certainly using the judicial system to seek redress has taught her that she can and must defend democracy on the piece of ground on which she is standing.
    Finally an essential objective of student government is as a training ground for full membership in a living democracy. Can we really expect the next generation of leaders to be ready to take the mantle if schools teach that ballots can be ignored? Some of the recent testimony in depositions has been that all students running for office need the approval of the administrators. Essentially, there are only certain types of students who are desirable for these roles. I find this paternalistic perspective very sad. I would venture to guess that the ‘unfit’ candidate is a student who is at some risk. What better way to engage such a student than to not only allow him/her to participate in student government, but to encourage it? Similarly, why shouldn’t students learn to live with the candidates they elect?
    I glean from your post that you and I share a concern about apathy. If I thought that this was just about ‘douchebag’ (and, by the way, Avery did not spell douchebag without the ‘e’ – I don’t know how that got started. She did spell it as one-word, which is also incorrect) we would not be in federal court.

    Again, thank you for your thoughtful post.

    Lauren Doninger

  2. I am a blogger who has followed very closely the Doninger case. Your question at the end is very interesting. Whatever happened to Joseph Frederick, the star of the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case? Whatever happened to Matthew Fraser from Bethel v. Fraser?

    Neither of them seem to be role models for other high school students to look up to. Avery Doninger is a very different case.

    Since the case, she has learned more Constitutional law than may law school students probably learn. She has spoken at high schools and colleges about the importance of defending our free speech, and she has used her speech to testify before the State Legislator on genocide awareness as part of being an activist on behalf of Darfur.

    In terms of her college applications, it seems to have had an important impact. She has written one of the best college application essays I’ve seen in ages. You can read the essay on my blog at
    http://www.orient-lodge.com/node/2576

  3. I have followed this case and find Mrs Doninger’s remarks self-serving and not in the best interests of her daughter. The idea that Avery is an ‘acivist’ when she protested the jamfest is absurd. She behaved like a spoiled child who throws a tantrum when she doesn’t get her way. The school administrators took every appropriate action to avoid punishing the student for their actions. The school did not suspend or punish the 4 kids (including Avery) for the original email to the community. The Jamfest issue was resolved peacefully and appropriately after a meeting between the students and the administrators. ONLY AVERY WENT HOME THE SAME EVENING AND WRTOE ON HER LIVEJOURNAL. None of the other sutdents involved acted so hastily and malisciously. The other students apologized and life went on. Had Avery done the same the entire incident would have passed unnoticed. But no; Avery had to keeep up her rant against the administration even after she know that the jamfest was not cancelled and even after she know that a meeting to resolve the issue had been shceduled for the next morning. She couldn’t wait. The school, after finding this out, felt that Avery did not exemplify the characteristics that a class officer should represent and so did not allow her to run for class secretary in the next election (they did NOT remove her from her current position!). The school NEVER allows write-in votes (class officers elections are NOT a popularity contest – all candidtes require approval by the high school pricipal) and so the fact that AVery massed her friends to write in her name on ballots makes absolutely no difference and does not represent a meaningful win in a fair election — no difference than if they had written in Mickey Mouse for class secretary. I don’t assume that Avery or her mother would argue that Mickey Mouse should be the class secretary if he won by write-in vote? (But then again, Mrs. Doninger is so blind to the idiocy of her daughter’s lawsuit in the big scheme of things that perhaps she actully might argue that Mickey Mouse HAD won the election!)

    Avery was punished not because of her use of some vulger languange on the internet (that is the case that her mother wants everyone to believe). She was punished for a series of behaviors that did not represent the civility and good citizenship expected of class officers. She was not suspended. She was not told to remove the vulgar language. She was asked to apologize which she did only after going to the press with her story – weeks after the event – so nobody could say she didn’t apologize. Her apology was cleary false as anyone who has followed the case knows.

    Mrs. Doniinger is a hard woman with a self-righteous attitude that she is passing along to her daughter. The real world will not be nice to her or her daughter. Activist be damned!

  4. Thanks for taking the time to reply. My information comes largely from the trial transcripts, as well as recent articles in the Hartford Courant and Tri-Town Post.

    Not sure if I’ve mentioned this previously in my blog — I was on a Journalistic Integrity Task Force appointed by our university president following an outrageous article on rape in our school newspaper. My opinion, then as now, is that the main way to deal with outrageous speech is more speech. Of course, I’m dealing with a college setting, where we are bound by the Healy decision.

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