Wesley Chapel High School’s First Amendment values = Fail

Tampa-area Wesley Chapel High School declined last year from a “C” to a “D” in Florida’s school performance ratings. Only 40 percent of Wesley Chapel students meet high standards in reading, and the school was recently mired in a grade-changing scandal that included a star football player. Its administrators would appear to have plenty of actual work on their hands.

And yet, these administrators have decided it is a productive use of their time to punish an 18-year-old honor student for the following “disloyal” act: hosting a Facebook page on which other people said terrible things about the school and its teachers.

Alex Fuentes’ problems started when, embarrassed by his school’s declining academic ranking, he created a (now-retitled) Facebook group called “Wesley Chapel High School = Fail,” a play on the popular (and often hilarious) failblog.

When school administrators learned of the Facebook group — and saw that several visitors had posted ugly remarks about teachers on the group’s comment board — they took the sensible and measured step of calling Fuentes and his parents into the office for a conversation in which they asked Fuentes to shut down the group or better police the conduct of its members.

No, really, that would have been the sensible and measured thing to do, but it of course is not what Principal Carin Nettles and her administration did at all. Instead, Fuentes was accused of violating the “loyalty oath” that the school requires of all National Honor Society members, and was dragged in front of a six-member faculty committee to have his NHS membership revoked. (Understandably, Fuentes no longer felt safe from arbitrary acts of disciplinary overreaching at Wesley Chapel, and has since transferred.)

It is of course petty and childish for public employees to behave in this manner. But the larger fault lies with the federal judges whose “I never met a principal I couldn’t defer to” attitude has emboldened school administrators to believe they can punish just about anyone connected to their school for doing just about anything just about anywhere.

Misguided federal judges have set the stage for Wesley Chapel’s behavior by badly blurring the line that properly constrains schools’ jurisdiction to school-based or school-sponsored events, and by finding that schools may withdraw “privileges” (such as membership in honor societies) for essentially any reason — even for the illegitimate reason of retaliating against lawful speech.

Despite what two errant federal judges appear to think, it is never constitutionally permissible to punish off-campus speech based on the fear that its listeners might act disruptively on campus. The proper course, legally and managerially, is to punish those who actually commit the disruption.

But Fuentes’ situation is even a step removed from that: punishing an off-campus speaker based on the reactions of other off campus speakers. If that becomes the accepted standard for school disciplinary authority, then the student who criticizes her school superintendent in a letter-to-the-editor can lawfully be punished if readers post profane responses on the newspaper’s comment board.

The notion that a school may require (and strictly enforce) a loyalty oath as a condition of honor-society membership is a noxious fiction. There is no “entitlement” to attend college, but a principal who responded to a student critic by sabotaging the student’s chances at college admission undeniably would be violating the First Amendment. National Honor Society membership is a step-stone to college acceptance. It cannot be lawful to strip a student of that valuable credential because he criticized his school, or created a vehicle for others to criticize it.

Forgetting for a moment about the legalities, consider the message conveyed by Wesley Chapel’s action: that it is “disloyal” to express discontent with a school’s failings. This is how we want to prepare our young people for citizenship? If merely saying “Fail” is a punishable act of disloyalty, then saying “impeach the President” must be treason. Everybody good with that?

Interestingly, the National Honor Society’s national membership standards in fact say nothing about “loyalty” — but they do require “a high regard for freedom, justice, and democracy.” By those standards, Wesley Chapel High School richly deserves its “D” rating, and that is giving its administrators the benefit of a mighty forgiving curve. It is incumbent upon the NHS to decertify Wesley Chapel as a member unless the school reverses its overreaction and repairs the damage it has inflicted on Fuentes’ record.