Students’ Racist Tweets About Boston Hockey Game Put Schools in a Bind

James Eng, MSNBC, May 3, 2012

Should schools punish students who tweeted racist remarks after a black pro hockey player scored the winning goal to knock the Boston Bruins out of the NHL playoffs?

Administrators at high schools and colleges in New England are wrestling with that question, straddling a fine line between free speech and socially incorrect remarks that shame the school.

Hordes of angry hockey fans—presumably Boston Bruins fans—unleashed a barrage of racist rants on Twitter and other social-networking sites after the Washington Capitals beat the defending champion Bruins a week ago Wednesday on an overtime goal by Joel Ward, the Capitals’ 31-year-old left wing. Ward is one of just a handful of black players in the NHL.

According to local media reports, several students at high schools in Gloucester and Danvers in Massachusetts, the Cumberland, R.I., School District, and Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire were among the tweeters.

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Gloucester School District Superintendent Richard Safier, in a statement issued to the local newspaper two days after the game, said the district is “conducting a full investigation and will consider whether disciplinary action is warranted, and whether the schools have jurisdiction.

“Second, we will implement a strong educational component that looks at the social, moral, and legal aspects of such remarks,” he added.

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At Franklin Pierce University, a private college in Rindge, N.H., administrators said they were investigating “vile racial slurs” tweeted by a freshman after the Bruins’ loss.

“This first-year student, who is not a part of any Franklin Pierce University athletic team, will be addressed appropriately and in accordance with our Student Conduct Code,” the university said in a statement.

The student apologized in a follow-up tweet, saying: “I was in a state that had me frustrated. I am not racist and never will be. Sorry.”

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In Danvers, Mass., a 17-year-old who reportedly used the N-word in a tweet referring to Ward was fired by the sandwich shop where he works, according to the Danvers Herald.

The teen is a student at St. John’s Prep, a private, Catholic high school for boys. “As a school community, St. John’s Prep stands against racism in any form, and we are deeply disturbed by the remarks posted online following the Bruins game on Wednesday, April 25. In keeping with school disciplinary policies, we are investigating the matter at this time,” the school said. A school spokeswoman declined further comment on any potential action the school might take.

In Cumberland, R.I., school Superintendent Phil Thornton said a junior hockey player posted a racist tweet under his own name, followed by the name of his high school.

“The comments . . . are deeply disturbing and not part of what we teach,” Thornton said, according to the Boston Herald. “We have been in contact with the family and are taking all steps to address this very serious issue.”

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A 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Tinker vs. Des Moines, found that public schools could only punish students’ speech if they could show that the activities “would materially and substantially” disrupt the school’s educational mission.

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Should schools be allowed to discipline students for offensive tweets posted away from school?

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