I’d really like to read the book.
Most people who’ve been commenting on the case of Jeff Fraser, the 17-year-old Carroll High School student expelled for writing a "parody book" said to be "satirically critical" of the school and some people in it, haven’t read it. That leaves them commenting in a vaccum, relying mostly on their own preconceived ideas about the way school-student relationships should be. An exception is Tracy Warner of The Journal Gazettte (an editorial in his paper says the book "includes an occasional expletive and heavy amounts of criticism, but it is at times funny and perceptive"). A school board member, on the other hand, says the book has "some pretty pointed comments made towards certain personnel that I think were way out of line.”
So, obviously, there can be a difference of opinion, and I’d like to decide for myself. It would be important to know, wouldn’t it, whether Fraser makes fun of cafeteria food and takes a teacher to task for falling asleep in class, or whether he makes vicious comments about the principle and even worse ones about some of his classmates? Comedian Jon Stewart, whose "America (the Book)" is said to be the model for "Carroll (the School)," threw his satire out to a nationwide audience that made his book a very small part of their lives. A high school is a small, closed system where the simplest stimulus can reverberate into serious consequences.
If this were just a straightforward First Amendment case, the contents of the book wouldn’t matter; judging something by its content would be, in fact, a sure sign that you’re in dangerous freedom-of-speech territory — the whole point is to protect unpopular speech. But high school speech is not so cut-and-dried. It’s fine to quote Tinker vs. Des Moines School Dist. and Judge Fortas’ famous comment that, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." But that’s just one Supreme Court case among several dealing with schools and the First Amendment, and it happens to be the one most supportive of student rights. In Bethel School District Vs. Fraser, for example, the court held that, "Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the states from insisting that certain modes of expression are inappropriate and subject to sanctions. The inculcation of these values is truly the work of the school, and the determination of what manner of speech is inappropriate properly rests with the school board."
The determining factor is whether student speech can be said to interfere with necessary school functions or not. In Tinker, students were wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War; that was pure political speech, and the court ruled that it wasn’t reasonable to argue that the students were interfering with the school. In Bethel, a student speaking at an assemly made gratuitous sexual references and, in fact, caused disruption. There’s a whole lot of territory between Tinker and Bethel, and how can we decide where Fraser’s book fits until we actually know what’s in it?
When all is said and done, it is quite likely that Carroll officials overreacted and that a suspension would have been more appropriate than expulsion. Nance is right that punishment tends to be disproportionate to the crime in school districts here. She said this in a comment on this Fort Wayne Observed post:
Public schools throughout Allen County have a long history of utterly draconian punishments for inconsequential infractions, and this case only takes its place in the line. Remember the Ukrainian exchange student who took pictures in the locker room? Wayne High School’s jackbooters expelled not only him, but the kids in the pictures, who as far as I can tell committed the crime of taking a shower.
The list goes on and on and on — kids sent to the alternative high school for drinking a beer in July, for passing a flask on a bus trip to Cedar Point, etc. And all were defended by administrators and other fluttery sorts for their "zero tolerance" approach to the disciplinary code.
But right now, without knowing what the damm book says, we can only guess. No one has been able to quote Fraser, and schools are required by privacy laws not to say much. More will soon be known probably. Indiana Parley reports that the 17-year-old will be interviewed at 7 a.m. tomorrow on WBYR "The Bear" (98.9 FM). And by the time the school board gets around to adjudicating this in Februrary, more of us will have seen the book.
Those of us in the press, I think, need to be careful not to make this too much our cause just because the First Amendment is so near and dear to us. Carroll is not exactly (or not just) a stand-in for "the government," with the students representing citizens who are denied their right to free expression. A school is a structured learning environment, and officials have an obligation to provide a safe and healthy place for that learning. Its in loco parentis role alone complicates the pure First Amendment analysis, and a school also has to consider its relationships to teachers, taxpayers, school board members, the educational establishment from the federal government on down, and the communtiy as a whole that it serves. Merely considering this a case of "students don’t check their rights at the schoolhouse door" vastly oversimplifies a complicated issue.
Or maybe I’m overcomplicating a simple issue. As I said, I’d like to actually read the book.
As an aside, I find it interesting that (according to the JG editorial), Jeff Fraser put on the first page of his creation "393 US 503," which is the docket number for the Tinker case. Maybe Fraser was surprised by the expulsion, but he is no wide-eyed innocent blindsided by an evil and oppressive education establishment. He knew he was courting trouble and explicity laid out his defense from the beginning.