Jacob Behymer-Smith is a ninth-grader at the Coral Academy of Science, a public charter school in Nevada. He's participating in the Poetry Out Loud contest, which is run by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and in which high school students compete at reciting a great poem that they've memorized. Behymer-Smith chose W.H. Auden's The More Loving One; so far, he's progressed from his school competition to a district-wide competition, in which he placed first. On April 22, he'll be competing in the Nevada statewide competition. You'd think that the Coral Academy's officials would be happy for him, and would be trying to support him.
You'd be mistaken, because -- horror of horrors -- Auden's poem, it turns out, contains unspeakable vulgarities. To be precise, it contains the words "hell" ("Looking up at the stars, I know quite well / That, for all they care, I can go to hell") and "damn" ("Admirer as I think I am / Of stars that do not give a damn"). That, the Dean of Students at the Coral Academy opined, is "inappropriate language," as opposed to the "pristine language" (her words) that she thinks ought to be presented to the school's students.
And because of this, the school insisted on April 7, Jacob couldn't perform his poem. Not at the school; that happened already, which is what prompted the Dean of Students' initial "pristine[ness]" objection. No, school officials said, Jacob is prohibited from speak the words "hell" and "damn" at the district-wide competition at the Governor's Mansion in Carson City, on a Saturday. Instead, the officials said, Jacob should choose another poem to recite there -- 15 days after their order -- though Jacob reports (not implausibly) that he practiced his chosen poem twice a day for more than two months. (Recall that the competition is all about quality of performance, since the students are supposed to recite poems they didn't write; it stands to reason that this quality would be closely connected to practice time.)
Fortunately, a federal district court (hat tip: How Appealing) issued an order on Thursday temporarily enjoining the school's prohibition, and thus preventing the school from retaliating against Jacob for his performance on the 22nd. The event, the court pointed out, isn't a school-sponsored curricular activity: The school plays a role in the competition, but the coming event is off school grounds, outside school time, and run by the NEA and the Poetry Foundation, not by the school. The court also held that this speech isn't the sort of "lewd" and "vulgar and offensive" speech that the Supreme Court has held that schools have the power to restrict (at least on-campus). And there was no reason at all to think that the speech would disrupt the school's educational mission, the one remaining theory under which the speech of public school students can be restricted.
I suppose that if I were the school's lawyer, I could come up with a nonfrivolous argument justifying the school's actions: I'd have to say that the winner of the schoolwide phase of the competition becomes the school's representative at further stages of the competition, and the school is entitled to make sure that its representative conveys a "pristine" image. (Winning students' schools get prizes, alongside the prizes given to the student.)
But while this isn't a frivolous argument, it surely is a weak one. The coming phases of the contest are not run by the school. The phases at the school are supposed to be judged on the student's qualities as a reciter; they aren't an endorsement of the merits of the poem. (The recited poem is selected by each student from an anthology prepared by the contest organizers.) The student competes on his own; it seems to me a stretch to say that he's the voice of the school -- and thus properly under the school's control -- in any meaningful way. The court was, I think, right to say that the First Amendment denies the school any power to restrict what the student says outside school hours, off school property, while quoting a poem.
And even setting aside the constitutional issue, what was the school administration thinking? How could it have fallen into this unintentional parody of high school administators' narrowmindedness?
Can modern literature -- and I'm not even talking about the racier stuff -- even be taught with an insistence that all one's language be "pristine"? (I'll even give the school the benefit of the doubt and assume that their objection isn't to the words "damn" and "hell" as such, or else there goes Paradise Lost, but to the words used in nontheological senses.) And what kind of lesson in loyalty is it when a school undermines a winning student who's gone on to compete at higher levels, instead of supporting him?
Even if in a perfect world, the Coral Academy's students would never let a hell or a damn pass their lips (again, except in a theological context), where is the school's sense of perspective? Their sense that there are places where the school's writ does not run? That there are works of literature for which exceptions should be made, even assuming the rule is in principle a good one? That when a student has done well, you should cheer him on rather than trying to block him?