First Amendment

Florida high school administrators lose sense of humor AND fail constitutional law

“Have we lost our sense of humor?”

Whoopi Goldberg, co-host of The View, asked this question when talk turned to how a Florida high school punished a top student for some tongue-in-cheek classroom oratory.  J.P. Krause, a 17-year-old rising senior, was disqualified from the senior class presidency after he gave a humorous speech that ribbed another candidate and jokingly suggested building a Trump-like “wall” to protect against the archrival high school.

So it seems we haven’t just lost our sense of humor—we’ve also lost sight of the First Amendment on campus. Whether it be the shutting down of an Ann Coulter speech at Cal Berkeley or the shouting down of a Charles Murray speech at Middlebury College, free speech rights are often getting run over these days in our halls of education.

Administrators at Vero Beach High School on Florida’s Atlantic Coast clearly need a refresher course in those freedoms, in light of their inexcusable treatment of J.P. Krause.  It all started when he was asked, in his AP History Class, to say a few words on behalf of his campaign to be senior president.  He decided to take a lighthearted approach, offering obviously silly and made-up contrasts between himself and his opponent.  

Classmates were appreciative; he won the election (even, as one wag put it, “without a hint of Russian involvement.”)

But the school administration wasn’t smiling.  The principal summarily disqualified J.P and imposed a detention, on the grounds the school’s anti-harassment code had somehow been violated.  This punishment goes on J.P.’s record.

High school students, particularly those campaigning in a school election, cannot be punished for innocuous humor and political satire of the sort J.P. engaged in.

The school says J.P. “humiliated” his opponent.  But thanks to a student who recorded the speech, we know J.P. did no such thing. Here is the sum and substance of his comments:

Thank you all for coming here today. I’d just like to say that I’m hoping that I’d be able to win your vote with a brief speech. I represent everything [my opposing candidate] does not. I am all for freedom, equality, and liberty. [She] wants to advance communist ideals into our very fabric of our government. She will expand the government so you will not be able to do anything. She will likely create a dress code for you all. She will raise taxes to 80%.  I do not want any taxes for our students. Our student body is the most . . . is one of the smartest in our county. She wants, represents Sebastian River High School [the rival high school].  What I want…what I propose, is that we build a wall, between here and Sebastian River, and we make Sebastian River pay for it. Thank you all, and I hope I win your vote tomorrow.

Clearly, the speech reflects nothing more than good-natured, humorous, all-American campaigning for office.   Joy Behar, another co-host on The View, recognized its comedic cleverness: “You take what’s in the Zeitgeist, and you put it into another situation . . . it was smart.”

Indeed, the school had previously recognized J.P.’s intelligence, and sent him to represent the school at a national academic competition on the very day of the election—where he and his team placed third in the country.

When he returned from representing his school with honor, he found out that school officials had dishonorably taken away the election result he earned.

Their action defied not just common sense, but also the Constitution.  As the Supreme Court has held, “[N]either students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the court established that a student speech may not be censored unless it causes a substantial disruption of, or a material interference with, school activities. J.P.’s speech did neither.  It simply employed innocent sarcasm in pursuit of his fellow students’ votes.

In a case called Saxe v. State College Area School District, then-Judge Samuel Alito, writing for the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, struck down a school district’s harassment policy as overbroad, because it banned even “simple acts of teasing and name-calling.”  The school’s policy—like the one used against J.P.—had no threshold requirement of pervasiveness or severity, so it could be used to ban or punish any comments that might somehow offend someone.  This blunderbuss approach went too far, the court held, because it could bar “core” political speech, even if it poses no realistic threat of substantial disruption.

The Supreme Court has recognized the classroom as a “marketplace of ideas,” and emphasized that the “nation’s future depends on leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas.”  High school students, particularly those campaigning in a school election, cannot be punished for innocuous humor and political satire of the sort J.P. engaged in.

Shaking her head over J.P.’s plight, Whoopi Goldberg noted that the First Amendment “is the bedrock of our democracy.” Just so. That’s why J.P.’s school should reverse its decision and reinstate him as the rightful winner of his senior class election. The Constitution demands nothing less.

Mark Miller is a senior attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation. Representing J.P. Krause, he has written a formal letter to school officials demanding that they rescind their punishment of him.