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.