The Heckler’s Veto

A few weeks ago, the 9th Circus ruled that it was acceptable for a school to ban shirts displaying the American flag. Their reasoning was that high school students do not have full Constitution liberties, which is a well-established precedent, and that the shirts would have caused disruption in the school by angering Mexican students.

Yeah.

This was the end of a series of confrontations between Mexican-American students and white ones alternatively displaying Mexican and American flags. The confrontations had been growing more alarming and the school said they acted to defuse the situation. But here’s what Eugene Volokh had to say:

This is a classic “heckler’s veto” — thugs threatening to attack the speaker, and government officials suppressing the speech to prevent such violence. “Heckler’s vetoes” are generally not allowed under First Amendment law; the government should generally protect the speaker and threaten to arrest the thugs, not suppress the speaker’s speech. But under Tinker‘s “forecast substantial disruption” test, such a heckler’s veto is indeed allowed.

Yet even if the judges are right, the situation in the school seems very bad. Somehow, we’ve reached the point that students can’t safely display the American flag in an American school, because of a fear that other students will attack them for it — and the school feels unable to prevent such attacks (by punishing the threateners and the attackers, and by teaching students tolerance for other students’ speech). Something is badly wrong, whether such an incident happens on May 5 or any other day.

And this is especially so because behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. The school taught its students a simple lesson: If you dislike speech and want it suppressed, then you can get what you want by threatening violence against the speakers. The school will cave in, the speakers will be shut up, and you and your ideology will win. When thuggery pays, the result is more thuggery. Is that the education we want our students to be getting?

It’s not clear to me if Mexican flag shirts were banned too. That would at least be … somewhat defensible, I guess, if you ignore which country this was taking place in. But it would still set a dangerous Heckler’s Veto precedent in our schools. A veto that at least one North Carolina school is taking up:

WLOS-TV reports that 9-year-old Grayson Bruce was being “punch[ed],” “push[ed]” and “call[ed] … horrible names” for bringing a “My Little Pony” bag to school — so school officials told him to stop bringing the bag:

[Bruce’s mother, Noreen, says] the school asked him to leave the bag at home because it had become a distraction and was a “trigger for bullying.” …

Buncombe County Schools declined an interview, but sent us this statement, “an initial step was taken to immediately address a situation that had created a disruption in the classroom. Buncombe County Schools takes bullying very seriously, and we will continue to take steps to resolve this issue.”

So let’s get this straight. Boy brings My Little Pony bag to school. Assholes call it girly and bully him. And the school … tells him not to bring My Little Pony bag to school anymore.

I’m not sure what we would have done with a My Little Pony-carrying kid in my school. I’ve seen quite a bit of My Little Pony since Sal 11000 Beta loves the show. It’s girly, but not ridiculously so. And there is, in fact, an online community of male fans of the show called “bronies” although the less said about them the better (I was once at a conference and told a colleague about the brony thing. He thought I was making it up until he googled it.)

I’m sure the bully-defenders will claim he was provoking them; deliberately bring the bag to create this situation (since we all know how much kids love being bullied). But let me ask a straight-forward question. If you allow students to enforce some kind of social norm this way, where does it end? If a kid is being harassed because he is gay, do you tell him to pretend to be straight? If he’s being punched for being openly religious, do you tell him to stop wearing a cross? If he’s being called horrible names for his political views, do you tell him to wear an Obama button? At what point will you finally concede that the bullies might be the problem and not the victim?

Granted, it’s just a book bag. But notice the word “trigger”. The school officials are acting like the My Little Pony bag, by its very presence, provokes an uncontrollable rage in the students. If only we removed the evil talisman of My Little Pony, the bullying would stop.

But it won’t. That’s the gripping hand here: removing the My Little Pony bag will not stop the bullying. As anyone who has witnessed or experienced bullying can tell you, stopping the behavior that “invites” bullying only invites bullying on some other subject. And it goes on until the bullies find something the victim can’t change. If they get rid of a My Little Pony bag, the bullies will get on him about his unfashionable shoes. And if he gets rid of the shoes, they’ll find something else until they end up on something like race, religion or grades. Removing “triggers” for bullying doesn’t stop bullying any more than making women wear burkhas stops rape. Bullying is a choice, not an uncontrollable reflex.

Amy Alkon, in the comments:

You don’t stop bullying by giving the bullies a free pass on their behavioe[sic]. I think the best way to put an end to this particular incident is to sit down with the kids causing the problem and their parents

This is how the bullying of me in junior high stopped. A gang of girls followed me around, taunted me, threw things at me. My dad went to the principal.

I have a similar story, but from another perspective.

When I was in Hebrew High School, there was one kid who was the target of relentless abuse. Everyone made fun of him, even me, probably because we ourselves were picked on so often in regular school. One day, one of the teachers pulled the entire class into a room and laid into us something fierce. He pulled no punches in telling us that we were behaving horribly, that the kid had attempted suicide before and that he would not put with any more of our bullshit.

Thinking back on it, he had little authority to really do anything. But no one said a word. Everyone was looking at the floor or the wall, ashamed. And, in the end, we backed the hell off the kid. Confrontation from an authority figure worked. And I don’t think the kid “tattled”; the teacher just saw what was going on and did something about it because he was a good and decent man.

I still think about that to this day, thirty years later. I still hope he got everything together and is living a happy life. And I am still extremely grateful to the teacher who did not let us get away with it, who did something to stop the bullying.

Comments are closed.

  1. Seattle Outcast

    During the 70’s bullying went on largely without comment from the schools. It would have to get to the point of kids being beaten to the point of requiring an emergency room visit for any authority figures to even consider stepping in, and even then it would be some mealy-mouthed “you kids should know better” scene right out of South Park.

    To watch people defend a bully’s actions is pretty sickening crap, particularly when it’s a parent that knows full well what is going on, but just doesn’t want to do anything about it.

    But it teaches a lesson. If they can cause several stitches to the face worth of damage and get away with it without any repercussions, nor will there be any when the reverse is true. And there wasn’t….

    Thumb up 1

  2. InsipiD

    It’s not clear to me if Mexican flag shirts were banned too.

    I doubt they were. I’m sure THAT would be considered protected speech, even for the lower standard of students.

    Thumb up 3

  3. Hal_10000 *

    I doubt they were. I’m sure THAT would be considered protected speech, even for the lower standard of students.

    I fear that you’re right. But I want to confirm.

    Thumb up 0

  4. Miguelito

    I’m not sure what we would have done with a My Little Pony-carrying kid in my school. I’ve seen quite a bit of My Little Pony since Sal 11000 Beta loves the show. It’s girly, but not ridiculously so. And there is, in fact, an online community of male fans of the show called “bronies” although the less said about them the better (I was once at a conference and told a colleague about the brony thing. He thought I was making it up until he googled it.)

    It’s actually more then just that. My 15 year old nephew and practically his entire class is into it for some reason. I sorta think it’s more of an irony thing. Sorta like liking something for the kitsch factor.

    Thumb up 0

  5. Section8

    Their reasoning was that high school students do not have full Constitution liberties, which is a well-established precedent, and that the shirts would have caused disruption in the school by angering Mexican students.

    Why would they be angered? These folks, probably many here illegally, love this country and have nothing but the best hopes and dreams for the future of this nation would never ever be offended by any symbolism regarding America. Clearly this story is made up in the first place. I think it’s right wingers who secretly pushed this ruling through to put these folks in a bad light. I mean that has to be it.

    Thumb up 2

  6. hist_ed

    Legal precedent is pretty clear: public schools can ban almost any expression if they deem it to be disruptive to the learning environment. Generally courts are pretty deferential to the decisions of the administrators at the school. If the principal decided that the US flag was disruptive but the Mexican wasn’t, that would probably be upheld by the courts.

    The big exception is generally expression that is part of the curriculum, so if there was some sort of social studies cultural day that involved dressing up, then they couldn’t ban flag shirt on that day.

    The solution is not legal but political-if enough voters in the district have had enough they will vote out the board that supports the policy.

    Thumb up 3

  7. Hal_10000 *

    Apparently, the school has caved. Amazing how they can make the right decision once ten million internet users say, “WTF, man?!”

    Thumb up 1

  8. hist_ed

    Check Hal, me too.

    It is amazing how narrow the politics can be in the staff room. I work in a small to medium sized middle school. There is one other teacher I know is a right wing lunatic like me (though I am further out on the scale then he). There’s a young teacher in his 20s who has commented that he likes Rand Paul (always followed by “but . . .” Other than that the ideology is about as rigid as a politbureau meeting in Havana. The other two don’t tend to speak up when ideas are batted around at meetings. I’ve had the entire staff looking at me like I’m from outer space because I wasn’t too enthusiastic about some idea or another. Often I think I am simply offering the parent perspective rather than the right wing perspective (the best training I ever had for teaching was to be dismissed and condescended to by my daughter’s elementary school teachers and staff).

    This decision was probably made by administrators, not the whole staff. And I bet they didn’t get a single person who said “Wait a minute, maybe we should think about this from some other perspective.” Probably didn’t even occur to them that half the country would be offended.

    Thumb up 2

  9. AlexInCT

    Often I think I am simply offering the parent perspective rather than the right wing perspective (the best training I ever had for teaching was to be dismissed and condescended to by my daughter’s elementary school teachers and staff).

    I think the interesting observation hist_ed is how the left wing perspective seems to always be so anti-parenting….

    Thumb up 0

  10. CM

    I think the interesting observation hist_ed is how the left wing perspective seems to always be so anti-parenting….

    Wow, cool, further ‘evidence’ that I’m not aligned with the ‘left wing perspective’ then.

    Thumb up 0