Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog

5.23.2007

Mixed Verdict for Student Speech

By Shawn Healy
Fresh off of this morning's announcement that Cary-Grove (IL) High School student Alan Lee will not face disorderly conduct charges for the violent essay he penned in his high school English class, free speech advocates breathed a collective sigh of relief. This decision landed on top of a California appeals court decision in favor of former student Andrew Smith who authored an op-ed piece critical of illegal immigration, only to have Novato High School officials confiscate remaining copies of the paper and send a letter to parents claiming the piece should never have been published. Quite a departure from the experience of journalism teacher Amy Sorrell and student Megan Chase at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School outside of Fort Wayne, IN.

Gregory Requa, a senior at Kentridge (WA) High School, wasn't quite so fortunate. He allegedly took part in producing a film critical of his junior English teacher, Joyce Mong. The short video (caution: offensive material included) was filmed last year, posted on YouTube over the summer, and first discovered by school officials and the since retired teacher only after a local television station (KOMO 4 News) called seeking commentary in February 2007. Requa denies any role in the film's production. He did link the video to his MySpace page upon viewing it last summer. The principal, Michael Albrecht, considered the film a form of harassment and suspended Requa for 40 days. He will be able to participate in graduation ceremonies only if he writes a research paper on the issue of sexual harassment.

Admittedly, none of these stories are black and white, slam dunk cases. The video of Mong is without doubt tasteless and stands as borderline defamation, and Requa (and/ or other members of the guilty party) should be subjected to a libel suit (if Mong pursues the case) outside of the school environment. Punishment for production of the video and its life on the Internet, especially without definitive evidence of his guilt or material and sustantial disruption of the learning environment is constitutionally questionable.

Lee escaped legal charges, but his attorney's penchant to blame the teacher, Nora Capron, who assigned the essay, borders on ludicrous. Free writing exercises are invitations to write about whatever crosses one's mind, but Lee, a solid student and former Marine recruit, should have known better than to pen threatening prose implicating his teacher. In this era of Columbine and Virginia Tech, Capron was right to raise the red flag. Teachers are placed in a precarious position when security concerns collide with student speech. Imagine the blame Capron would bear if Lee carried through with his written threats.

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SHAWN HEALY

Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project


Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.



Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.


First Amendment journalism initiative


The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at