Terrifying Teen Speech in the News Again

By Garrett Epps

What kind of democracy teaches its young people they'll be punished for talking out of turn?

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If there's one belief that unites Americans, it's that First Amendment freedom of speech is a good thing.  Everybody should have it: cigarette companies, SuperPACs, hate groups, Todd Akin, Cher, and Nichole Ritchie.

Teenagers, not so much. They might say something wrong. Better to shut them up.

The last time the issue of impudent teen speech came up in this column, my comments page was swamped with suggestions that the problem wasn't free speech, it was rudeness. Teens, you see, can't be allowed to be rude. The saucy-teen issue has surfaced again, this time in the person of a high-school valedictorian in a small Oklahoma town who used the phrase "what the hell" in a graduation speech and has been punished with the withholding of her diploma.

What the hell?

Is this really how a free country treats its young adults? And will the "good manners" brigade rally around this latest episode of petty grown-up bullying?

Kaitlin Nootbaar topped her class at Prague High School in Prague, Oklahoma.  She has won a full scholarship to Southwest Oklahoma State University, where she hopes to study biology. Any sane school would be boasting about her.

But Prague High Principal David Smith has apparently decided to punish Kaitlin because in her valedictory address she said that, when people ask her what she wants to be, she responds, "How the hell should I know? I've changed my mind so many times." According to Kaitlin and her father, Smith said there will be no diploma until she tenders a written apology. Kaitlin, bless her spunky heartland heart, has refused.

The manners brigade is sure to point out that Kaitlin was required to submit her speech in advance, and that the text she submitted used the word "heck."  She has told reporters that in the excitement of the moment, she used "hell" instead -- in part because it echoes the graduation speech in Twilight: Eclipse.

If that's true, she's guilty of nothing more than bad taste in entertainment, and Principal Smith should be apologizing to her for the poor education she received.  But what if this saucy miss actually intended all along to say "hell," and submitted the bowdlerized text to prevent the Principal from stopping her? Surely that makes her the offender, and Principal Smith the victim?

The hell, you say.

Remember, we are dealing with a student who has done everything our system asks of her -- excelled in school, won college admission and a scholarship. In exchange, she is offered a brief moment to say what she thinks. But there's a catch: The censor must approve every thought and every word. She is free to say anything the principal wants her to say.

Every free citizen should know how to outwit a censor, and applaud others who do the same.

If Kaitlin was sneaking "what the hell?" past the censor, it did little injury to the Class of 2012 at PHS -- a school whose official mascot is the Red Devil. There's no call for revolution, violence, free love, or atheism. Any of those might cause a ruckus and bring genuine offense. (Just to be clear, I think a school valedictorian has a right to talk about those things, too, and I wish more did -- but Kaitlin didn't.) If the audience at Prague's graduation is like the ones at graduations I attend, most of them probably didn't even notice the word fly by. And if some people didn't like it, they had every right to criticize Kaitlin. They don't have the right to shut her up.

From the outside, this seems like the age-old battle between a grown-up bully and stubborn kid.

I have huge respect for many people who teach and administer high school. When they do it well, they make everyone's lives better.

But anyone who's ever been in high school knows that some people are drawn to education because they enjoy petty power over people who can't fight back. 

Note the disproportion in Kaitlin's punishment: because of a one-word transgression, she loses something she worked four years to get. Note the lack of process here: the decision was apparently made by one man. Note the desire to humiliate: the principal wants a letter apologizing.

The larger question is this: In a society that operates on the free exchange of ideas, why do we tolerate an educational system that teaches children to keep safe by keeping silent?

"Talking's something you can't do judiciously, unless you keep in practice," says the Fat Man in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. A democratic society thrives when its people are willing and able to talk back to authority. Elections, legislatures, newspapers -- none of them mean anything if people are afraid of deviating from the official line.

Principal Smith's superior, Prague School Superintendent Rick Martin, has backed him up. In a statement, Martin said Smith's "request was both reasonable and in keeping with established federal case law interpreting the First Amendment."

Unfortunately, he may be right about the "federal case law." The Supreme Court falls all over itself to protect the speech of anonymous political-action committees, millionaire political candidates, and mammoth drug corporations. "Where the First Amendment is implicated," Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court in 2007, "the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor."

But that was in a case about a well-funded anti-abortion group. On the very same day, Roberts wrote another opinion upholding the silencing of a high-school student who unfurled a banner reading "BONG HITS 4 JESUS." In that case, tie goes to the school -- because someone somewhere might have somehow decided that the banner meant the school endorsed drug use.

It's hornbook law that the First Amendment requires dialogue that is "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." But that's for people like Karl Rove, not like Kaitlin Nootbaar. Young people must prepare for their role as citizens by submitting their remarks in advance and kissing the ground when they transgress.

The hell with that.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/08/terrifying-teen-speech-in-the-news-again/261534/