Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Doninger Case

The Avery Doninger case has now reached the courts, which means that it likely will be settled on legal grounds. But, as we all know, legal settlements are not always compatible with common sense.

Common sense would have settled this issue long ago.

Doninger is the student – now famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view – who called the arrogant administrators in her school “douchbags,” not the politest of terms. But she had, as the lawyers might say, cause.

The precipitating cause of Doninger’s outburst, in an e-mail message to her friends, was frustration; it happens to the best of us.

Those details are described at considerable length, and in luminous prose, by Jon Schoenhorn in his brief on Doninger’s behalf and in a series of posts written by Andy Thibault, who maintains a site called, modestly enough, The Cool Justice Report, the nearest thing we have in the state to Nat Hentoff’s hard hitting reportage.

Tibault is the natural born enemy of pomposity wherever it shows its wrinkled brow. You just knew that when the word “douchbag” trickled down from Doninger’s computer to the courts and hearings Thibault has faithfully attended, it would be sounded a thousand times, as crisply as the shot heard round the world at Lexington and Concord.

For a Tom Paineian addicted to common sense, it’s difficult to understand how things got to this point.

Having now reviewed the brief by Schoenhorn and at least half a dozen shouts heard round the world by Thibault, I am hear to tell you that Doninger’s salty epithet is a Hemmingwayesque understatement.

These administrators would try the patience of a saint.

Two points ought to be made: 1) On the face of it, the notion that discipline in school requires the disciplinarian to suspend First Amendment rights is patently absurd; and 2) We are told that schools, in the absence of parents, should act in locus parentis. Schools and school administrators need not act in the place of parents when their charges are at home with the parents. Place and circumstance matter, or should matter. School discipline should terminate at the doors of the school. Messages send on computers, however objectionable, should be answered in the same way – not by the imposition of silly authoritarian shows of power.

But there is more to this case than that. It’s pretty clear that school administrators were trimming the truth in many of their dealings with Doninger. That might pass muster in school hallways; but not in courts of law.
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