FLORIDA — In an unprecedented use of state hate crimes laws, nine high school students were jailed overnight, suspended and eventually expelled for publishing a pamphlet including comments that the school1s principal perceived as personal threats.
\nThe 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 handwritten article in which the writer wondered, “what would happen if I shot Dawson in the head ….”
\nThe pamphlet also contained a depiction of Dawson engaged in group sex and a caricature of campus security guards womanizing students. Also printed were crude remarks critical of “immigrant” students who don’t speak English.
\nBut students intended for “The First Amendment” to draw attention to overcrowded conditions at the school, their desire to improve the quality of teaching and advances made toward female students by members of the security staff. They also expressed their commitment to battling perceived censorship as well as general ramblings of teenage angst.
\n”It wasn1t 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.
\nDawson 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 was an “enhancement” charge that could increase the penalty for a crime motivated by racism. The accused students could have faced up to five years in prison.
\nHowever, four days after the arrests, state Attorney General Katherine Fernandez Rundle dropped the charges, despite her belief that “probable cause did exist for school authorities to believe a crime had occurred.”
\nMorales countered, “There was no racist intent in it. All nine of us are completely against racism.”
\nAccording to the Associated Press, they spent the night after the arrests in a Dade County jail filled with alleged killers and rapists before being released to their parents.
\nThe school system supported the arrests, claiming that the comments about Dawson amounted to a death threat.
\nHenry 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.”
\nYet once the criminal charges were dropped, the school district charged the students with a variety of “conduct” offenses, including “not conforming to school standards” and use of “provocative language,” as the basis for their expulsion.
\nThe students defend their publication as an exercise of their First Amendment rights, not an incitement to violence as administrators have argued.
\n”To take it as a death threat is ridiculous,” said Morales. “It’s just ramblings.”
\nOf 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.\nThe arrests and expulsions rekindled the debate about free speech in public schools. Ironically, the area is 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.
\nMembers of the local American Civil Liberties Union have come to the students1 defense, challenging their expulsion.
\n”This is not a crime. What they did was publish and circulate a racist, childish, offensive newsletter,” Howard Simon, executive director of Florida1s 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 don1t address that by locking kids up in jail for engaging in offensive speech.”