Censorship and the Phoebe Prince bullying case

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By Bill Newman, director of ACLU’s western Massachusetts office, Northampton, Mass.

The suicide of Phoebe Prince, the reports of bullying at the South Hadley High School, and the criminal indictments of six students. These emotionally charged issues, exponentially exacerbated by intense local and national media coverage, have roiled this western Massachusetts town.

At the beginning of the School Committee meeting of April 14, the first after the criminal indictments, the committee chair announced his ground rules for discussing the Phoebe Prince case during the public comment session.  When a speaker, Luke Gelinas, used his time to discuss bullying and criticize school officials, the chair ordered the police to remove Mr. Gelinas from the microphone and the meeting.

That censorship received widespread condemnation and although the School Committee has not yet formally responded to the ACLU’s demand to cease its censorship, the ACLU as a practical matter has received an answer.  During the public comment session of the subsequent School Committee meeting, its critics were not silenced.  They fully expressed their views, and no one was tossed out.

As the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the county’s newspaper of record, editorialized, “Our free speech protections can make for some ugly interaction[s] . . . .  Fortunately, the First Amendment protects the spoken opinions of all of us, no matter how unwelcome or obnoxious at times.”  The paper correctly noted that a public board “can set their own rules on the scheduling of Public Comment and the length of time a speaker is allowed, but cannot censor the message itself.” 

Censorship of both content and viewpoint is exactly what happened at that April 14 South Hadley School Committee meeting.  Such censorship, such discrimination based on viewpoint and content, is precisely what the First Amendment forbids.

 There is an antiipatable irony to the attempted censorship.  Instead of quieting the criticism, the gaveling down and removal of Mr. Gelinas engendered far more publicity of his viewpoint than ever would have occurred if the chair simply had allowed the speaker to have his say.

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