A “Hard Cases Make Bad Law” Classic: The School Board President’s Kid’s Social Media “Hate Speech”

Cullman City

I’d make this an ethics quiz, but I think it’s too potentially important to treat as a jump ball. This is the kind of extreme mess that threatens free speech, especially when on entire political party is searching for an excuse to ban “hate speech,” once they have defined it just well enough to constrain political opponents.

In Cullman City, Alabama, the school board’s president’s son, who attends the school district’s high school, posted a video to SnapChat in which he could be seen and heard chanting “White power!” and “Kill all the niggers!” The video has been widely circulated among students. The parent of a black student who saw the video has demanded the resignation of Amy Carter (no, not THAT Amy Carter; don’t be silly), the school board’s president. The parent is also demanding that the school take action against the student. “Cullman City Schools would clearly punish our son if he made a video threatening the white students of Cullman High School,” she wrote in an email. “My son is one of a handful of black children in the school. Tell me how he wouldn’t be threatened by KILL ALL THE Ns?! Explain to me how this is not a threat.”

Well, I can answer that last part. Under First Amendment case law, the “true threats” doctrine holds that allegedly threatening speech cannot be punished unless the government can prove that the speaker meant to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual. A chant on a video posted on social media that mentions no specific student will not qualify as an actionable threat. Her previous question is tougher. The school and the town itself has a reputation for racial hostility toward blacks. The mother of the black student says her son has repeatedly been subjected to racist remarks during his four years as a student in the district. I see good reason for the video to be unsettling in that context.

On the other hand, I’m getting awfully tired of the “they wouldn’t treat a black adult/child this way if he/she did X” argument, which is almost never challenged even when it’s bigoted nonsense, as in the race-based attacks on the Rittenhouse verdict. It’s more presumed racism, and a cheat, a device to avoid making a solid argument.

What students say, write or think when they are not in school and not on school property is not the school’s business unless the content is directed at school personnel or students. Social media blurred this principle and several school districts have tried to punish students for what they posted in their spare time. But in June of this year. the Supreme Court ruled that a school could not suspend student Brandi Levy from the cheerleading team for posting to social media (outside of school hours and away from the school’s campus) vulgar language and gestures critical of the school. It wasn’t some narrow conservatives vs liberals 5-4 holding either: this was an 8-1 majority.

The decision was pretty definitive, and I am grateful for it, but this awful scenario seems capable of poking a hole right through it. Doesn’t speech so directly aimed, like Paris’ poisoned arrow, at the Achilles Heel of a community’s comity justify—or demand?— adverse school action? Doesn’t the special identity of the offending student in this case, the son of the school board’s leader, change the equation? The test, at least since 1969’s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, has been whether off-campus speech has the potential of disrupting school activities.

I wouldn’t want my child, whatever color he was, attending a school in a system presided over by a leaders whose child sends the message “Kill all niggers!” out to the world. Is that “disruption enough to count? Trust in a school, by parents as well as students, is essential for it to function. Isn’t destroying trust a “disruption”?

Carter, following the usual script, claims her son is a good kid who just “made a mistake.” He told her he was just mimicking a TikTok video and wasn’t even aware that he was being recorded by another student until several days later when someone sent him the video on Snapchat. She insists that he was “devastated that his words harmed other people.”

Carter has an ethical obligation to make sure this potentially dangerous case never sees the inside of a courtroom:

First, she is obligated to resign her position, not because any parents demand it, but because she can’t lead the school board now. Her credibility is ruined in Cullman, and her parenting skills are much in doubt.

Second, she has to take action regarding her son so nobody else has to. He must apologize to the school, the community and his school mates. He must issue a video repudiating what he previously said, and in it, say why it was a breach of his duties as a member of the community. He must admit that he abused his right of free speech.

Third, Carter should pull her son out of the school, and the family out of Cullman City. Of course that will be a hardship, but this hardship was earned. The lesson must be communicated that it isn’t the government’s responsibility to make racist conduct unacceptable by making sure the consequences for it are dire, but that of the citizens, parents, families and private institutions of our democracy.

26 thoughts on “A “Hard Cases Make Bad Law” Classic: The School Board President’s Kid’s Social Media “Hate Speech”

  1. I can be with you up until the last part?

    Why leave?

    If someone demands an apology, reconciliation is the consideration

    Was the apology meaningless? Why apologize if reconciliation is impossible? If it is possible, why leave? If it’s not possible, why bother? Move on. Genuine contrition toward the spiteful is like throwing pearls at pigs. If you are leaving regardless, go forth and sun no more; an apology is wasted words.

    You are either going to have a community or not. We don’t exile people anymore.

              • I enjoyed it much more the second time around as an adult. Same with Gatsby. Moby Dick and Huck Finn were great from the start.

                Worse Great American Novels?

                On the Road. Read once. Good, as far as it went.

                Catcher in the Rye?

                Grapes of Wrath? Or Travels with Charley?

                Hemingway? I don’t know that Hemingway ever wrote a Great AMERICAN Novel.

                For what it is worth, if you have not read The Scarlet Letter recently, the story of redemption may be worth a second look.

                Even better? If there is an ethical view of forgiveness: East of Eden.

                -Jut

  2. I almost included this in the post: one source said that the kid was shouting “Kill all N-words!” That’s not just moronic, it’s not true, He wasn’t saying anything about words at all. If N-word literally means “nigger,” then why isn’t using the word like “nigger” just as bad as using the actual word? The same people who did this are the ones who maintain “Lets go Brandon!” is no different from “Fuck Joe Biden.”

    • Jack Marshall wrote, “If N-word literally means “nigger,” then why isn’t using the word like “nigger” just as bad as using the actual word? The same people who did this are the ones who maintain “Lets go Brandon!” is no different from “Fuck Joe Biden.” “

      AMEN!!!

  3. I would take your second suggestion but leave out the first and third. Social media has made what were previously stupid jokes told among a few friends into the equivalent of standing on a busy corner with a megaphone. Ethics needs to adapt to this reality. If the son’s version of events is accurate (who would be stupid enough to record themselves saying this and release it on purpose?), I would lay a good portion of the blame on the student who did record and release the video.

    • This is a variation of the Donald Sterling problem; Once the video is in the public domain, it’s fair game. The way the video was taken is unethical, the person who took the video cannot be trusted going forward, but unless there’s a reason to think that the video is fake, it exists, and the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. Life is an information game, and we cannot pretend that we don’t know what we know… Our opponents sure as hell won’t.

      And I disagree with you on point 1. A school board seat is an elected position, it is by definition political, and you are supposed to represent the people who elected you. If you do something where you know you’ve lost the confidence of the electorate, you can choose to try to hold out until the next election, but that’s just vanity… And depending on how bad the narrative is, you can become a distraction; dodging removal efforts and deflecting criticism, it interferes in the good process of government. It’s unfortunate that it’s her son’s actions and not hers that is making these problems for her, but… That’s politics.

      On point 3, I disagree with Jack, and I don’t understand where he’s coming from. There is no duty to self exile your entire family over political fallout. That said… It would probably be easier for the family if they did. Rittenhouse is another great example: What Rittenhouse did was legal, and frankly, the world is a better place without “JoJo” Rosenbaum or Anthony Huber. Heck, it’s a better place without Gaige Grosskreutz’s bicep. There are people in Kenosha who would buy him a beer. There are also people who would beat him to death in an alley. It will be much easier on his family if they all move to Florida or Texas, so it’s the smart thing to do.

      • I may not have been clear: it’s important for the future of free speech for this NOT to end up in court. If the kid insn’t immediately pulled out of the school, the school will try to punish him, and punish him for pure speech (“hate speech”) that offended lots of people. Either the mother will accept it, which will permit unconstitutional restrictions on speech in defiance of the SCOTUS case law to go forward, or she will have to sue—and I wouldn’t want to have to bet on the outcome. hence the article’s title. There is only one way to be sure to protect the First Amendment here, and that is to keep this extreme case out of the courts by the family engaging in self-punishment.

        And, incidentally, the family deserves it. No kid of mine—and my kid is extremely iconoclastic and defiant of authority, including mine, by nature—would ever have made a video like that, because he was raised properly and responsibly (and he’s smarter than that). When a highschooler does something like this, the parents have screwed up, and badly. The school board prez needs to quit, make amends, and leave—again, not just because the town is better off without her and her kid, but because what she triggered puts the First Amendment at risk, and greases the slippery slope to allowing the Left to ban what it calls “hate speech”—you know, like saying Kyle Rittenhouse wasn’t guilty.

        Clearer?

        • Clearer… Still disagree.

          If the American judicial system can’t be counted on to reinforce basic and clear tenets of democracy, and requires individuals to uproot to avoid constitutional crisis… Then we might as well pull the plug, because the system is already dead. I’m not nearly as pessimistic as you.

          • Indeed, we have a historical counterexample, the infamous March on Skokie.

            Of course, if we really need to pull the plug, electromagnetic pulses destroying the global power and telecommunications grid would be an effective method of doing it.

          • The First Amendment is in real peril, and in my experience, aged judges—like those over 30?—still think social media is the devil’s playground–which it is, but that doesn’t justify canceling rights. You know that if a showdown on the Second Amendment had been forced in the Sixties, that Court would have ruled that the 2nd was only to guarantee militias. To many people, too many, and a lot of judges, “hate speech” shouldn’t be protected. You know this. Why roll the dice?

  4. A question for the social media savvy among us: I thought the point of Snapchat is that the videos that are sent are ephemeral and can’t be forwarded, is this not the case?

    • That’s the default mode, but it also has a mode that operates more akin to a standard cellphone camera (and in some cases better features/performance than the stock camera software, so some use it exclusively).

  5. The lesson must be communicated that it isn’t the government’s responsibility to make racist conduct unacceptable by making sure the consequences for it are dire, but that of the citizens, parents, families and private institutions of our democracy.

    Back in the 1990’s, there was this animated adaptation of Marvel’s X-Men franchise.

    One quote stood.

    “Skin color prejudice? That’s so pathetic it’s almost quaint!”

    I also remember what you wrote about Mizzou back in 2015, how students staged walkouts and boycotts over mere words- not even criminal acts nor discrimination by the University, just words.

    You see, when we react to racist words with outrage and/or fear, we give the racists power.

    But when we react to racist words with ridicule, mockery and contempt, we take away their power.

    I know this from my own lived experience on Usenet newsgroups like soc.culture.israel.

  6. Jack,
    I agree with all of your suggestions except this one “Third, Carter should pull her son out of the school, and the family out of Cullman City“.

    After sending the right moral integrity and character building messages to everyone with suggestions one and two, this suggestion is sending the wrong message to everyone. You don’t run from these kinds of inner devils you face them head on and go on with life with the lessons learned as a moral guide, running away enables burying and ignoring the inner devils so the abuser can start over.

  7. The parents taking the action you proposed in item #2 and #3 might be precluded by the very real possiblity that the video is the mask slipping. Sometimes those accused of racism are actual racists.

  8. I agree with all three. School boards in small towns are often full of parents trying to get special treatment for their children. Sometimes it’s well meaning, like the father I knew of a special needs child who wanted to make sure special ed wasn’t ignored. But I’ve also had a guy tell me he was on the school board to make sure his daughter made the high school cheerleading squad. I suspect Mrs Carter falls more into the latter than the former.

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