May 27, 2004

Free Speech Correction

In this post, I linked to a column discussing an incident at a high school where the columnist alleges that students' free speech was severely abridged. It turns out the column may have been inaccurate.

Ampersand directed me to a post by Eugene Volokh presenting the case of the school administration, and a public statement by the student featured prominently in the article as a target of censorship. Both accounts differ significantly from the column.

From the administration:

  • The editorial describes an incident involving art students and teachers and "un-American" student posters. This incident did not occur at Rio Rancho High School or anywhere in the Rio Rancho Public Schools. It happened in a neighboring New Mexico school district and was widely reported by the local media. A cursory check of the archives of the Albuquerque papers would have revealed this fact.

  • Neither the Rio Rancho School Employees, Union (the union representing most district employees) nor the American Civil Liberties Union are parties to the current legal action.

  • The editorial states that the principal read a patriotic poem at a flag-raising ceremony and shouted "shut your face," to those who did not share his opinion. There was indeed a ceremony held to receive a flag that had been flown in the war theatre and donated to the school. A student read a poem written by a soldier serving in Iraq. The "shut your face" reference is part of this poem.

  • The editorial states that Mr. Nevins was unable to go to work at another school because the principal wouldn't forward his credentials. On September 11, 2003, the Rio Rancho Observer reported that Mr. Nevins was employed at a public charter school in Albuquerque. Procedurally, requests for credentials must be properly authorized by the employee and submitted to the Human Resources Department (not the principal). All such requests are promptly processed.

  • The editorial describes a poem written by a student named Courtney, and states that her mother (described as being a teacher at the school) was ordered by the principal to destroy the girl's poem or face dismissal. Not true. The student's mother is not a teacher; however, she was and continues to be employed by the school district. She was never threatened with being fired, nor was she ordered to destroy the poem. ...

From the student:

...During the fall semester at RRHS I wrote a poem entitled "Revolution X." I, along with other students, delivered poetry in the Performing Arts Center at the high school. We received praise from staff and students in the packed auditorium. Early in the spring term, I read my poem again on the school announcements. This poem is a social commentary. It comments on how our society claims to value education, but in actuality spends energy, time and resources on other things, such as war. A staff member, who has a military background and military mindset, complained about the poem, saying it was an anti-war speech. I can only assume that he cannot distinguish between a speech and a poem, or that he did not recognize it as an allegory.

Due to the complaint, the administration asked for a copy of the poem. No one demanded that my parents "search my room" for the poem, as has been reported. I delivered it to the RRHS administrators when I got back from Spring Break because they wished to read it. They read it, looking for two things: profanity and incitement to violence. They found neither. I was not disciplined. My freedom of speech was not violated. It has been suggested that I was not disciplined because my parents are on staff at the high school. Let me assure you that's not the case. In my years at Rio Rancho High School, I've been tardy to class and been busted for dress code, receiving my fair share of hours in after-school detention. Staff members' kids are not given preferential treatment.

When I asked the administration why Mr. Nevins was put on administrative leave, I was told that the reasons would not be discussed with me, but that they had absolutely nothing to do with me or my poem. I accept that. The administration at RRHS has been nothing but supportive of my poetry endeavors and continue to encourage my writing, even in light of all this nonsense. ...

I spend a lot of time complaining about the media, but I'm clearly just as susceptible to falling for conflated stories that fit my preconceptions as the next person. It seems that some things about this won't be clear until the court case is played out, but without what sounds like an imminent peril to free speech involved, I'm unlikely to be watching too closely.

Posted by natasha at May 27, 2004 05:46 PM | Apologies/Corrections | Technorati links |

Good points, natasha. The internet is great for providing multiple points of view, but it is sometimes very hard to tell when something is true or an urban legend. That is one reason it is dismaying that our own media is so suspectible to being conned or for them to simply go for the easy story. It would be nice if we could trust them to do their job vetting the stories they report, but as NY Times' mea culpa yesterday showed, they are definitely not doing their job well either - and it took more than a year for them to finally admit their mistake.

I really appreciate you correcting the record - because I do believe we will be able to better fix things if we are basing our actions and words on facts.

Posted by: Mary at May 27, 2004 07:21 PM

In fairness, I read that letter as well, and the lawyer who wrote it didn't support any of the claims she made, which seems improbable - if she could have, I would think she would have. I was particularly unimpressed with her claim that the principal didn't hold up the transfer - if he chose to sit on the paperwork, he would effectively be holding up the transfer even if it wasn't legally within his power to do so.

I'm also seriously unimpressed with the principal's claim that he was just reading someone else's poem at the assembly and it wasn't him saying that everyone who disagreed with him should keep their mouths shut about it. The teacher didn't write the poem he got in trouble for either.

So the kid's mother wasn't fired? Well, I assume she has a union. I'd be interested to know if the principal didn't threaten her anyway.

Take out the unsourced material and the irrelevancies, I don't think the lawyer's letter amounts to all that much.

Posted by: julia at May 30, 2004 06:05 PM

That's very interesting. I've seen similar parsings of the statements by Cambone and Rumsfeld re Abu Ghreib, and there was a lot of doublespeak going on in them, where it sounded good but when you scraped off the frosting, it was the same old underneath. This administration is masters of it - but it's a Party thing. Look at old Limbutt, and hsi supporters, going on about how he "voluntarily apologized" for his drug habit, and therefore wasn't like Clinton.

All that matters is the Good of the Party - which is them - and so they can lie, deceive, cheat, steal as they wish. I once met someone who had been part of the resistance before WWII to the Nazis, not White Rose but similar in Germany and in Austria, and what happened to him - he was a teacher, not jewish - was that they came into the University where he taught and said to every one of the faculty, "From now on you will not worry about whether things are true or false when you teach them, but whether they are for the good of the Nazi Party and the German people." Sort of run the two together, and prtend that "truth" isn't part of being good for the people.

"The facts are partisan"

Posted by: bellatrys at May 31, 2004 12:47 PM