FLORIDA — In an unprecedented use of state hate-crimes laws, nine high school students were jailed overnight for publishing a vulgarity-laden pamphlet including comments that the school’s principal perceived as personal threats.
The February 23 arrests of five girls and four boys were in response to the distribution of the underground booklet “The First Amendment,” which featured a picture of Killian High School’s black principal, Timothy Dawson, with a dart piercing his head and a hand-written article in which the writer wondered, “what would happen if I shot Dawson in the head …”
The pamphlet also contained a depiction of Dawson engaged in group sex and a charicature of campus security guards womanizing students. Also printed were crude remarks critical of “immigrant” students who don’t speak English.
“It wasn’t meant to be taken in a derogatory manner,” said David Morales, the first student to speak publicly since the arrest. “Anybody with an IQ over five could see the pamphlet was a satire,” Morales told the Miami Herald.
Dawson ordered school police to arrest the students, ages 16 to 18. According to news reports, the students were charged with a misdemeanor that forbids the anonymous publication of material that “exposes any individual or a religious group to hatred, contempt or ridicule.” Piggybacked to that charge is an “enhancement” charge that can increase the penalty for a crime motivated by racism. The accused students may face up to five years in prison.
“There was no racist intent in it. All nine of us are completely against racism,” said Morales.
Presently, the students are serving a 10-day suspension as they wait to learn whether they will be expelled. According to the Associated Press, they spent Monday night in a Dade County jail filled with alleged killers and rapists before being released to their parents.
The school system supported the arrests, claiming that the comments about Dawson amounted to a death threat.
Henry Fraind, deputy superintendent for Miami-Dade County Public Schools told the Associated Press, “The arrests were made and we stand by that decision. They do not have the right to incite the feelings of outward racism.”
The students defended their publication as an exercise of their First Amendment rights, not an incitement to violence as administrators have argued. “To take it as a death threat is ridiculous,” said Morales. “It’s just ramblings.”
Of the accused students, three have Hispanic surnames, one is Asian-American and, according to Morales, one is part African-American. Many of them are honor students.The arrests have rekindled the debate about free speech in public schools. Ironically, the area was one known for its liberal policy protecting students’ free speech in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision that granted discretionary power to high school administrators.
Members of the local American Civil Liberties Union have come to the students’ defense, questioning the application of the hate-crimes laws against them.
“This is not a crime. What they did was publish and circulate a racist, childish, offensive newsletter,” Howard Simon, executive director of Florida’s ACLU, told the Associated Press. “It clearly shows that there are real problems of racism and sexism at that high school and the school needs to address that. But you don’t address that by locking kids up in jail for engaging in offensive speech.”