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Student president takes school district to court over free speech rights; district backs down

A student body president at a California high school took his district to court on First Amendment grounds, and the latter ended up backing off.

The student from San Ramon Valley High School, whose name media redacted due to threats, made a (presidential) “campaign video” which depicted some “teens as armed’ Muslim terrorists’” and showed “’abductors’ shov[ing] used tissues into the boy’s face while another begins slapping his naked stomach.”

Another scene has the “terrorists” torturing him.

According to the East Bay Times, court documents say “[t]he video makes repeated racist and insensitive references to Middle Eastern people, stereotyping them based on their dress, accents and language, names, manner of praying and religious dietary restrictions.”

Students and parents alike were outraged, taking to social media to voice their displeasure. The president of the local Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) said “To allow these kind of incidents to just play out so innocently cannot be tolerated.”

Because of the video, the school had stripped the student of his position. However, after a further investigation — and even after  prevailing in court — the district changed its mind and allowed the student to retain the presidency.

From the story:

The school district attorneys contend the district was justified in preventing the teen from participating in extracurricular activities — in this case, the leadership role as student body president.

The teen said in his petition that the video was meant to be a parody of action movies, and contained no obscene, libelous or slanderous conduct. …

District officials refused to provide details of the incident, citing student privacy.

“Schools are in the difficult position of balancing student free speech rights with the need to foster an educational environment and assure that participants in student government elections learn the lessons that leadership is designed to teach,” Superintendent Rick Schmitt said in a statement.

More outrage followed the school’s reversal. But attorney Gill Sperlein, who represented the student, said “The video wasn’t meant to make a characterization of the Muslim community overall, only radical Islamic terrorists, which we can all agree are bad guys.”

The student’s parents added it was “inappropriate for the school to take the drastic action of disqualifying our son from the election and announcing the opposing candidate as ASB president without disclosing the vote count.”

Heat Street reports that at Tuesday’s school board meeting, a San Ramon student demanded the district “strip away [the student president’s] constitutional protection[s] in the context of a public school” due to his intemperate references to those of Middle Eastern background.

Believe it or not, this student isn’t that outrageous with his/her demands. Judges all the way to the US Supreme Court have given schools a lot of leeway in regulating student expression in the name of “orderly educational environment.” That the video was directly related to a school function — student government — emphasizes the point.

However, given the video was “briefly posted on Twitter” and removed immediately upon the recommendation of a friend, not to mention consideration of lawyer Sperlein’s remarks, these might be why the district ended up backtracking on its punishment.

Read the full East Bay Times and Heat Street articles.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 18 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.