Washington high school punishes student for failing to follow script

When is a speech for a student government office disruptive? When it’s effective, at least according to Edmonds-Woodway High School administrators.

On Feb. 7, student Pascal Cloutier went on the school’s closed-circuit broadcast system to deliver his speech as a candidate for student body president  But instead of giving the speech that the school had approved, he said something else entirely.

Some of the highlights of Cloutier’s speech, as reported by the local news website My Edmonds News:

  • “ASB has no real power […]  They are just the puppets of the teachers.”
  • “The teachers think this is THEIR school! They think that this school was built for THEM!”
  • “Do not vote today! […] If you vote at all you are voting for your own death and destruction!”

Cloutier then concluded by clarifying that he was not, in fact, running for anything. Instead, he had taken a calculated risk. He knew that by giving a speech other than the one that had been prior approved, he would be disqualified from the election.

What he didn’t know was that the school would decide his speech was “disruptive” and suspend him for a day and a half. The disruption? Cloutier says he was told that students and teachers talking about the speech were disruptive, according to My Edmonds News.

In other words, Cloutier had managed to disrupt the student body election by causing people to talk and think about the student body election. As silly as that is as a basis for discipline, it becomes sad and creepy when you realize that Cloutier’s argument in this speech—that the student government offices are “puppets of the teachers”—seems to hold water, because he was punished for even attempting to say something in an ASB election other than what the administration had approved.

Students have started a “Free Pascal” Facebook group.

In an Everett Herald story, John Dekker, assistant executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, is quoted as saying, “We certainly honor the First Amendment, but we also know that with that freedom comes some responsibility.”

I am not familiar with a concept of responsibility that suggests it’s irresponsible to say something without government approval. Presumably, then, the founding fathers were very irresponsible by this standard. A lesson in responsibility would be letting the student speak his mind, then hear the adverse reaction from administrators—not punishment for merely pointing out the apparent truth that his administrators don’t want the election to involve issues, discussion, or anything they haven’t approved. This is more a lesson in calculated cowardice.

Nearly 25 years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the suspension of another Washington State high school student for giving an ASB election speech. In Bethel School District v. Fraser, the Supreme Court said a high school could punish a student for a speech that was a “vulgar” and “lewd” protracted innuendo about a candidate’s sexual prowess. But the rule of Bethel is only that a school can punish vulgarity. Here, Cloutier was not vulgar; he was just opposed to the system. And opposing a system is not vulgar, particularly when then system is, apparently, so rotten.