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An F for vulgarity, an A for free speech

There has been both good commentary and handwringing in the education

blogosphere over the

recent decision in A.B. v. State

(Ind.App.2007). For example, see

the following:

  • Dave
  • Sherman

  • Wesley
  • Fryer

  • Mark
  • van ‘t Hooft

    For those of you who are interested, here’s my comment on Dave Sherman’s post:

    Dave, please see

    and my online presentation at

    In the case you cite,

    A.B. v. State (Ind.App.2007), the Greencastle Middle School student

    posted the following message on MySpace:

    Hey you piece of greencastle sh-t. What

    the f-ck do you think of me [now] that you can[‘t] control me? Huh? Ha ha ha

    guess what I’ll wear my f-cking piercings all day long and to school and you

    can[‘t] do sh-t about it! Ha ha f-cking ha! Stupid bastard! Oh and kudos to

    whomever made this ([I’m] pretty sure I know who). Get a


    Here’s what the court said:

    A.B. openly criticizes Gobert’s imposed

    school policy on decorative body piercings and forcefully indicates her

    displeasure with it. While we have little regard for A.B.’s use of vulgar

    epithets, we conclude that her overall message constitutes political speech.

    Addressing a state actor, the thrust of A.B.’s expression focuses on explicitly

    opposing Gobert’s action in enforcing a certain school policy.


    court also found insufficient harm to result from A.B.’s speech

    the State failed to produce any

    evidence that A.B.’s expression inflicted particularized harm analogous to

    tortuous injury on readily identifiable private interests as required to rebut

    A.B.’s claim of political speech.

    One of the key aspects of libel is

    that you have to prove harm to your reputation. It appears that the court in

    this case viewed this as a student spouting off on a school policy issue, which

    was well within her rights, and found insufficient harm to the principal’s

    reputation to warrant a finding of libel.

    Dave, you say that you’re

    worried about this happening to you. Is this any different than a post that

    said, “I disagree with Mr. Sherman’s policy on piercings? Who does he think he

    is? He can’t control me. I’m going to do whatever I want and there’s nothing he

    can do about it. I hate you, Mr. Sherman.”?

    As you know, you need to

    have a thick skin when you’re a principal!

    Finally, I’ll close with some quotes. My favorite school law quote of all

    time is the one from the Barnette case:

    • Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can

    succeed and no republic can survive. – Pres. John F. Kennedy

  • If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led,
  • like sheep to the slaughter. – Pres. George Washington

  • That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for
  • scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are

    not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount

    important principles of our government as mere platitudes. – West Virginia

    v. Barnette


  • If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t
  • believe in it at all. – Noam Chomsky


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