Reflections on the Doninger decision and the discussion at the Hartford Courant.

I was very interested to read the article in the Hartford Courant concerning the decision in the pretrial hearing of the Doninger case. The article is somewhat inaccurate and needs correcting. More significantly, the discussion in the forum is woefully laden with assertions based on misinformation.

The second paragraph leads off, “school officials were within their rights when they punished her for the comment as if she had made it on campus, a federal judge ruled Friday”. The problem is, that isn’t what the judge ruled. The rushed pretrial hearing, without any period for discovery, was to allow Avery Doninger to stand for re-election as class secretary, a position she won the plurality of votes as write-ins, but was not certified the winner because the school administration was upset about her blog post.

Judge Kravitz noted that there is a very high standard for providing a pretrial injunction that would change the status quo, and there did not appear to be enough evidence in his mind, to require such a pretrial injunction. The reason to seek a pretrial injunction, as opposed to waiting for the results of the full trial is that the full trial could take many months, or even years, and not be completed by the time Avery graduates from high school. It is noteworthy that Judge Kravitz often commented from the bench about this case being likely to find its way to the Supreme Court. Such a process could take several years.

So, school officials were not within their rights. Instead, enough evidence was not shown during a pretrial hearing to prove that they taken away Avery’s rights.

Now, on to the comments. Several parents have criticized Avery’s mother for not punishing Avery, or teaching her to admit when she is wrong. The problem with there assertions is that they don’t know the facts. Avery’s mother did punish her, in what I believe was an appropriate manner. Yet Avery’s mother also stood up for the basic freedoms that we have, even in a case where the speech was not something she approved of. This is laudable. It reminds me of when the ACLU stood up for the Nazi’s right to demonstrate in Illinois. Sometimes defending our basic freedoms means defending actions based on those freedoms we do not completely agree with.

An important issue is, who has the right to punish high school students for something they have done at home? Is it appropriate for the school administration to punish a student for something she has done at home, or should that be the responsibility of the parents. Personally, I believe that should be the responsibility of the parents. Avery’s mother acted responsible, and the school administrators’ actions overreached their responsibilities in a manner that is damaging to our country.

Another key issue is determining what speech is acceptable. As I’ve noted elsewhere, whether or not specific language is offensive is a question of context. Personally, I think many of the comments on the forum are offensive. It is not appropriate to be calling judges idiots because you disagree with their opinions. I watched Judge Kravitiz in the court. I disagree with his ruling, but he made many brilliant comments from the bench and illustrated a great depth of knowledge and understanding throughout the trial. To call the child a punk is offensive and inaccurate. The judge repeatedly noted that Avery is a model citizen. To call the mother a nut-case is likewise offensive and inaccurate. Mrs. Doninger demonstrated throughout the process a commitment to education, to our democratic processes, and to our basic rights that is sorely lacking in our country today.

A key issue in Freedom of Speech cases is whether of not an action will have a chilling effect on people’s freedom of speech. The response from a reader in Cheshire illustrates quite nicely this chilling effect:

I'm teaching my son to keep his mouth shut and opinions to himself so he can graduate from school without aggravation. Then when he's 18 he has the freedom to callout all the douchbags.

One of the interesting aspects is the call by Avery, as well as by other students, to have parents contact the school about the schools decision concerning a school event. During the trial the school administration tried to argue that speaking with parents was a disruption. There are some people in the thread that also seem to believe that school administrators should not speak with parents about school events. This is truly unfortunate. We need to encourage parental involvement, not discourage it.

I have written a lot on this case. I believe that there has been a wonderful teaching moment on the importance of free speech, on the importance of our democratic processes, and on the importance of civility in discourse. From what I have seen, Avery’s mother has fought hard to make sure that these lessons are learned, and the school administration has focused on wounded pride instead of trying to teach their students. For the sake of the Doninger’s I wish this were over. Yet for the sake of all of us learning more about our country, I’m glad it continues, and may in fact make it to the Supreme Court.

This is too important an issue to write quick statements that reflect a lack of understanding of the issues.