Racism Demands Education, Not Exile
The racist TikTok video that roiled a Georgia high school could have been a teachable moment. But administrators chose excommunication over education.
Carrollton City Schools swiftly expelled two white high school seniors whose cooking show spoof featured the N-word as the "recipe" and negative stereotypes about African Americans as "ingredients." Delivered in a hollow deadpan, the 50-second performance stoked outrage and disgust.
The smartphone video, recorded in one of the students' bathrooms, surfaced on April 16. Within 24 hours, Superintendent Mark Albertus announced that the teens were no longer Carrollton High School students.
Racist speech is contemptible, but so long as it doesn't include threats or incite violence, it's legal. School officials likely violated the former students' First Amendment rights. For starters, federal courts are split on when public schools can impose punishment for off-campus behavior. The video hit TikTok while students are out of school due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If the crude conduct is within the school district's purview, it would have to meet the Supreme Court's substantial disruption test established in Tinker v. Des Moines, the landmark 1969 case affirming high school students' free speech rights. Justices ruled that public schools can't censor student expression unless it would "materially and substantially interfere" with school operations and discipline.
Writing for the high court's 7-2 majority, Justice Abe Fortas added, "undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression."
Substantial disruption is a high bar. It's a dubious claim to make when students are learning remotely. How could any video, no matter how offensive, disrupt vacant classrooms or spark fights in empty hallways?
The legal case for cracking down on the TikTok performers is shaky at best. The moral case might be even flimsier.
Punishing people for prejudice doesn't enlighten them; it merely drives them underground. The history of conspiracy theories, cults and hate groups in America proves suppression and social isolation to be a poor strategy for reform.
Is the goal to silence racist invective by government force, or to confront and debunk it in the public square? When high school students express wrongheaded views, should we seek revenge or restorative justice?