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A Federal Court Makes a Bad Decision: School Authorities Cannot Discipline a Student For Posting a YouTube Video that Described a Classmate as a Slut


by Richard Fossey — August 16, 2010

In a bad decision for public education, a federal judge in California ruled that school authorities could not discipline a student for posting a YouTube video that described a classmate as a slut.

Every now and then—not often—a court renders a wrongheaded decision that puts a school district in an impossible position. Such a decision is J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District (2010), rendered last May by a federal judge in California.


Facts: A Student Posts a Video on YouTube, Which Describes a Classmate as a Slut


In May 2008, J.C., a student at Beverly Vista High School, recorded a brief video of her friends talking about a classmate of theirs—a thirteen-year-old girl identified only as C.C. One of J.C.’s friends described C.C. as a “slut,” and said that she was “spoiled” and “talks about boners.” The friend also described C.C. as “the ugliest piece of shit I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” During the video, J.C. could be heard encouraging her friend to continue talking about C.C., telling her to “continue with the Carina rant” (p. 4).


On the same evening she made the video, J.C. posted it on YouTube from her home computer. She then called five or ten students at her school and invited them to view the video on YouTube. She also contacted C.C. and told her about the video. C.C. told J.C. she considered the video to be “mean” but asked her to keep the video on YouTube, apparently so she and her mother could present the video to school authorities. On the night the video was posted, it received 90 hits.


On the following day, C.C. and her mother went to the high school and reported the video to Janice Hart, a school counselor. C.C. was crying and told Hart that she faced “humiliation,” experienced “hurt feelings” and did not want to go to class (p. 6).


School authorities investigated the incident, taking a few students out of class for questioning. After consulting with the school district’s lawyers, school officials suspended J.C. for two days. The YouTube incident was not J.C.’s first video caper. The school had suspended J.C. for a prior incident in which she had secretly videotaped her teachers at school, and administrators had told her not to make any more videotapes on the school campus (p. 7).


Judge Wilson’s Decision: The School Violated J.C.’s Constitutional Right to Free Speech


In a lengthy decision (26 pages), Judge Stephen Wilson ruled that the Beverly Hills School District had violated J.C.’s constitutional rights to free speech under the First Amendment when it suspended her for posting her offensive video on YouTube. In ruling for J.C., Judge Wilson relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). In that landmark decision, the Supreme Court upheld the right of students to express themselves in the school environment unless school authorities reasonably believed that the speech would create a “material and substantial” disruption to school activities or would interfere with the rights of others.  


In Judge Wilson’s view, J.C.’s video had not created a disruption at school that was serious enough to justify punishing J.C. “Interpreting the facts in the most favorable light for [the school defendants],” Judge Wilson concluded, showed only “that the School had to address the concerns of an upset parent and a student who temporarily refused to go to class, and that five students missed some undetermined portion of their classes” on the day school officials investigated the YouTube incident. “This does not rise to the level of a substantial disruption,” Judge Wilson said (pp. 63-64).


Judge Wilson did not minimize the hurtfulness of J.C.’s YouTube video, which he characterized as both derogatory and defamatory. Nevertheless, Judge Wilson ruled, C.C.’s hurt feelings and embarrassment, coupled with her temporary desire not to go to class, did not justify school officials in punishing J.C. On the contrary, Judge Wilson said, “[T]o allow the School to cast this wide a net and suspend a student simply because another student takes offense at her speech, without any evidence that such speech caused a substantial disruption of the school’s activities, runs afoul of Tinker” (p. 64).


Beverly Hills school officials argued that their decision to punish J.C. was justified under the Tinker decision’s so-called second prong, which allows schools to censor student speech that “impinge[s] on the rights of other students” (p. 80). In particular, the defendants called Judge Wilson’s attention to Harper v. Poway Unified School District (2006), in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that schools can punish student speech that demeans vulnerable students—particularly students who are demeaned based on their race, religion, or sexual orientation. According to the Beverly Hills School District, Harper demonstrated that schools have an obligation “to protect students from psychological assaults that cause them to question their self worth” (p. 84).


Judge Wilson didn’t buy that argument. The judge wrote that he was aware of no legal authority that would allow a school to censor student speech simply because the speech might cause emotional harm to another student.


Courts Must Give Schools the Authority to Punish Students Who Vilify Classmates on the Web


J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District illustrates the dilemma that school districts face when a student vilifies a classmate in an electronic communication—be it YouTube, MySpace, a personal web site, or a blog. Schools have a duty to protect their students from bullying and harassment. In fact, many states have anti-bullying laws that impose legal obligations on school districts. But if schools punish a student for harassing or bullying another student via an electronic communication, they face a lawsuit by the offending student, based on the claim that her constitutional rights were violated.


Hurtful cyberspeech is a serious problem for the public schools. As the media has reported, several students have committed suicide after classmates embarrassed or bullied them through web-based communications (Campbell, 2009; Khadaroo, 2010). Courts must give schools the constitutional authority to discipline students who publicly demean, defame, or vilify their classmates—whether the verbal assault takes place on school grounds or in cyberspace. When a student posts a YouTube video calling a thirteen-year-old child a “slut” and a “piece of shit,” that student richly deserves to be punished by school authorities. Judge Wilson was wrong to rule that J.C.’s mean-spirited YouTube video was constitutionally protected.


References


Campbell, C. C. (2009, December 10). ‘Sexting’ suicides should serve as wake-up calls. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. A17.


J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District, CV 08-03824 SVW, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54481 (C.D. Cal., May 6, 2010).


Harper v. Poway Unified School District, 445 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2006), judgment vacated, 549 U.S. 1262 (2007) (dismissed as moot).


Khadaroo, S. T. (2010, February 26). Internet safety: Whose job to teach kids about it? Christian Science Monitor.


Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 16, 2010
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16113, Date Accessed: 10/24/2017 3:45:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Richard Fossey
    University of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD FOSSEY is a Professor and Senior Policy Researcher at the Center for the Study of Education Reform at the University of North Texas.
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