Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pre-approving Freedom of Speech

The brouhaha coming out of Prague, OK recently gives me a chance to talk about a case in Fullerton, CA that I’ve wanted to write about since last spring, but that had never seemed to make it to the top of the stack. I’ll get to what they have in common—other than idiot administrators—in a moment.

Let’s start with the earlier case. At Fullerton High School, there’s an annual “Mr. Fullerton” event, a sort of variation on the theme of beauty pageant: it’s unclear to me how much is serious and how much is parody. Anyway, one of the elements of the contest is a question-and-answer session. There seems to be no exact transcript of what contestant Kearian Giertz (left) said, but his after-the-fact description seems to be universally accepted as catching the gist:
I said, ‘Hopefully, in ten years’ time, I’ll be winning Emmys, Oscars and Tonys’—just, you know, the typical answer—and, then I added, ‘But, more importantly, I’d really, really like to sit on the couch with the person that I love and say I’m married to them. And my case, that is a male. And, I hope that, in ten years’ time, gay marriage would be legal.
Cue the idiot Assistant Principal. (As usual, Gentle Reader, Curmie apologizes for the redundancy.) Onto the stage trots one Joe Abell, ordering Giertz’s microphone turned off (“Cut him! Cut him! Cut him!”), ushering him backstage, and disqualifying him from the festivities for “going off script.”

Considerable brouhaha ensued, with student protests, public and private apologies by Abell, statements by school board members, the whole nine yards. The official (i.e., Cover Our Ass) statement from the district (I can’t find the original, complete text) said that whereas Abell’s actions were prompted by “what the Assistant Principal believed to be a statement that was off script and not pre-approved,” “the student’s statement… regarding… future plans and hopes did not violate any school rules,” and “[the] District believes that the matter should have been handled privately….” Abell was briefly suspended, then returned to his job. He will be re-assigned to classroom teaching in another school for next year: a move he had apparently already requested long before this incident.

Shift to Oklahoma. There, in the tiny town of Prague, high school valedictorian Kaitlin Nootbaar (right) was denied her diploma because she used the word “hell” in her valedictory speech. Yes, really. Ms. Nootbaar, like many teens, has changed her mind not infrequently about her long-term goals. According to her father,
”Her quote was, ‘When she first started school she wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian and now that she was getting closer to graduation, people would ask her, what do you want to do and she said how the hell do I know? I’ve changed my mind so many times.’”

He said in the written script she gave to the school she wrote “heck,” but in the moment she said “hell” instead.

Nootbaar said the audience laughed, she finished her speech to warm applause and didn’t know there was a problem.

That was until she went to pick up the real certificate this week [in mid-August].

“We went to the office and asked for the diploma and the principal said, ‘Your diploma is right here but you’re not getting it. Close the door; we have a problem,’” Nootbaar said.

He said the principal told Kaitlin she would have to write an apology letter before he would release the diploma.
She has (quite reasonably) refused to do so. As with the California case, there has been great hoopla, with even a little more spice in the mix: an appearance on the “Today” show, accusations from Papa Nootbaar that Principal David Smith “constantly picked on” Kaitlin throughout her senior year, and the inability of Smith or Superintendent Rick Martin to comprehend the fact that they’re embarrassing themselves and their district with their fit of censorious petulance.

It’s pretty clear in all this that no one is exactly without fault. The substitution of “hell” for the approved “heck” seems to have been deliberate, even if not planned from the beginning. David Nootbaar’s “stand your ground” rhetoric is at least one step past the line into libertarian arrogance. But the school’s conniption over a word that, used once, doesn’t even change a movie rating from G to PG, is positively absurd. Sure, “hell” is a stronger expletive than “heck,” but not by much. Songs like “Highway to Hell,” “Hell’s Bells,” and “Hell Is for Children” blare across public airways. Not so coincidentally, “heaven” songs often contain the word hell: “If you want to get to heaven, you’ve got to raise a little hell”; “If there’s a rock and roll heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a band.” Plug “‘how the hell’ lyrics” into a Google search and you’ll get 154,000,000 hits.

The word most often linked with “hell” on the scale of potentially offensive language is part of one of the most famous movie quotations ever, from a G-rated movie… or did someone change that line to “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn” when I wasn’t paying attention?

More to the point, withholding a student’s diploma for such an offense, even if it were premeditated from the very beginning, is simultaneously overkill and a particularly good example of administrative impotence. It’s the former because the transgression, if it even qualifies as such, merits at most a private reprimand. It’s the latter because Ms. Nootbaar is by now already attending classes at Southwest Oklahoma University, and it’s only a matter of time before that piece of paper from her high school—if and when she gets it—will be shoved into a drawer or a box… or perhaps discarded altogether. One suspects that she’ll earn at least a BA or BS, and quite likely an advanced degree, as well. And nothing Prague High School attempts to do about that will matter in the slightest.

No, they chose to piss into the wind for no apparent purpose other than asserting one last time that they’re in charge. As virtually anyone who knows me personally will attest, one of my personal mantras is, “If you have to tell me, it ain’t so.” If you’re directing a play and you have to tell your cast that you’re in charge, you’re not. If you’re teaching a class and you have to tell your students that you’re in charge, you’re not. If you’re a high school principal and you’ve got to tell your recent graduates (and Ms. Nootbaar is, apparently, an alumna, even if she doesn’t have a piece of paper that says so) that you’re in charge, you’re not.

Both these stories feature over-reactions by school administrators: not just making mountains out of molehills, but constructing the entire Himalayan range out of an adolescent mole’s first attempt. But what I find fascinating is the “sticking to the script” trope. Notice that the students in question had to submit their commentary to school officials prior to being allowed to speak in public. Yes, I know that’s both legal and prudent. It’s also creepy… in two ways.

First, let’s look at the utterly dishonest pragmatics of the whole charade. This entire rationale is a scam. I spent a good share of the last week in auditions for a play I’m directing. I know some of the monologues students presented, and I can say with certainty that there were some paraphrases up there. At callbacks, by definition limited to those most likely to be cast, actors with scripts in their hands didn’t get everything word for word correct. And that’s actually OK. Sure, I want everything to be word perfect when we open. But I’ve been around the block a couple of times in my career: I know—don’t just suspect, but know—that someone will drop a line or say something at least as different from the text as “hell” is from “heck.”

I know for a fact that I both paraphrased and added a line when I gave a scholarly paper at a conference last month, despite the fact that I had the written text in my hands. And that made the paper more effective rather than less so, despite the fact that I’d spent a considerable amount of time crafting the presentation to say exactly what I wanted it to. Because I was making eye contact with my audience rather than burying my face in my text, I could sense where clarification was needed, when two examples instead of the three I’d scripted would suffice, and so on. There are two, and only two, differences between what I did and what Mr. Giertz and Ms. Nootbaar did: my variations from the script went unnoticed because no one else had seen the text (and because the audience was comprised largely of people who’d done precisely the same thing with their presentations earlier in the conference), and, well, I’m older.

In other words, using “going off script” as an excuse to punish someone is disingenuous simply because it happens all the time: it’s the equivalent of firing someone because they use the office computer to check Facebook during their lunch break. “The rules are clear. You can’t use the office computer except for official business.” Except that everyone does it, and singling someone out for doing so is always a stand-in for something else. One suspects that had Nootbaar changed inserted her current interest in marine biology into her speech, or had Giertz recently entered into a relationship with a girl and burbled that he hopes to marry her someday, there would have been no repercussions, despite the obvious deviations from scripted remarks.

More troubling, however, is the implicit assumption that it’s any of the school’s business to censor students. If you don’t trust your valedictorian not to say something offensive, don’t have her speak. It’s not a requirement—there was no such speech at either my high school or college graduation ceremonies. (Or at least I don’t remember them… that was a while ago.) As noted above, I understand the rationale. But I also reject it. If you’ve done your job as a school, you’ve instilled at least a modicum of responsibility in your students: tell the valedictorian or the participants in a light-hearted contest they need to stay on track and the chances are pretty good that they’ll do so.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t occasionally wish some student had done something else. But the ones who earned the right to speak deserve the right to do so without administrative interference. Conversely, those who seek naughtiness for its own sake will say what they want when they want, whether they’ve submitted a script or not. Trusting students to do what they’re supposed to do isn’t easy. It is, however, a risk worth taking, and ultimately the right thing to do. But that would require abstract thought and faith in someone other than themselves: the two things the average high school administrator lacks.

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