Zero tolerance for juvenile speech

Free Press

Speaking of Michael Sangiacomo (or “Mike SanGiacomo” as he’s known when writing comics rather than acting as a newpaper journalist), his latest “Journey Into Comics” column tells about a 12-year-old boy in Worthington OH (a suburb of Columbus) who’s facing possible expulsion from school over violent comics he drew. His school has a “zero tolerance” policy regarding violent statements. Note: “zero tolerance” should be pronounced the same as “zero intelligence”, because that’s what such policies really amount to. (That principle holds true whether it’s a policy about drugs, alcohol, weapons, etc. But I’ll stick to the free speech aspect here.)

There’s no actual civil or criminal charge involved here. The police chose not to get involved, so it’s “just” a school policy matter. Still, the school is acting - as schools generally do, whether public or private - as a de facto sub-local government. The courts have ruled that students do not have the same level of First Amendment protection at school that people have elsewhere. This case is an example of that authority in action.

Sangiacomo’s headline “AND WHEN THEY CAME FOR COLUMBUS…I DID NOT CARE…AND WHEN THEY CAME FOR ME…?” (a reference to the famous parable by the Rev. Martin Neimöller, about how fascism can take over) is a little hyperbolic, but the point is a valid one. This is just a kid, in some ‘burb in Ohio. But if his rights to express himself are limited without anyone stepping in to defend them, it becomes easier for the next limitation to be imposed.

Despite what it says in the U.S. Constitution, free speech has never been regarded as absolute under U.S. law. There have always been limits placed on it, usually with some kind of appeal to common sense attached. The oft-quoted “yelling FIRE in a crowded theater” situation is one example. There’s by no means universal agreement on this point, but the majority opinion seems to be that threats against someone’s life or safety should not be protected speech. That makes sense.

But when “zero intelligence” standards are attached to that (or any other) notion, common sense is left on the doorstep. So you have people (especially students) disciplined for using cold medications containing small quantities of alcohol or mild narcotics, for bringing a brightly-colored squirt gun to school, or (in this case) for drawing cartoons in which he fantasizes about the death of a teacher or other authority figure. By no reasonable standard are these examples of substance abuse, weapons, or credible threats. No actual harm is done by any of these. The rules which criminalise them lack common sense.

The only harm done when a kid violates a “zero tolerance” policy is to undermine the authority of the letter of the law. I would argue that the spirit of the law is more important. After all, the letter of the supreme law of the land says simply that the government shall pass no law… abridging the freedom of speech. But common sense tells us that there have to be exceptions. Common sense should also tell us that those exceptions need exceptions as well.

See the Associated Press story for info about the case.

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