A middle school in California has screwed up. And now it’s getting taken to court. Hillel Aron gives us the background over at Courthouse News Service:
It was, perhaps, inevitable that the strange incident at a Ventura County middle school last year when dozens of students were banned from wearing T-shirts reading “Justice for Lil Pickle,” would result in a First Amendment lawsuit.
It began, innocently enough, with a Friday lunchtime recital by student Dylan Arevalo, otherwise known as Lil Pickle. The day before, Arevalo announced on Instagram that he would be performing his original song, “Crack is Wack,” along with two other students. Buzz for the performance was stronger than anyone would have imagined — hundreds of middle schoolers showed up for the outdoor concert. School staff found the size of the crowd troubling, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit [PDF], filed in Ventura County by student “G.K.”, fills the rest of the details.
The first stupid thing was calling the cops. I know administrators tend to get concerned the moment students decide to start exercising their freedom of association rights, but possibly some more due diligence than “oh noes a crowd is forming” was needed before involving law enforcement.
Then there’s the follow-up activities, like confiscating phones, demanding students delete recordings of the aborted performance and the confluence of cops and administrators. In the end, “Lil Pickle” was sent home for the rest of the day, which set off another, more entrepreneurial, chain of events.
G.K. borrowed his friend’s heat press and cranked out several dozen shirts featuring the phrase “Justice for Lil Pickle.” According to the lawsuit, he sold these for $15 each, with some of the purchasers being teachers at the school.
When G.K. and his younger sister (along with other students) wore their T-shirts to school, they were ordered to cover them up or remove them. G.K. refused. The school called his father, who happens to be Santa Barbara Police Department captain(!) in hopes of having him talk some sense into his child. Instead, the officer said he supported G.K.(!!) and any choice his child decided to make. Ultimately, G.K. donned a sweatshirt over the Justice shirt. His younger sister refused to cover the shirt up and was sent home.
The school can’t really explain why it did this. There didn’t appear to be any disruption. If anyone was disrupting learning, it was the administrators who were hunting down kids wearing the shirts and demanding they cover them up.
As the lawsuit notes, the two administrators couldn’t even agree on why they were demanding students change clothes.
Plaintiffs are informed and believe and based thereon allege that Defendant Lorelle Dawes found issue with the use of the term “Pickle” while Defendant Jennifer Branstetter was personally offended with the use of the word “Justice” related to the individuals in the performance and the conduct the school took regarding the performance.
The administrators then hastily enacted a ban on clothing referencing “Lil Pickle,” something that wasn’t in the school’s dress code prior to their overreaction to the innocuous t-shirts. Then they extended the ban to include “the use of the word “pickle” and the display of pickle-related imagery”(!!!) and threatened to punish anyone wearing decals, pins, or “face paint”(!!!!) referencing “Lil Pickle” or, apparently, pickles of any size.
So, the First Amendment. Still a thing and still a right possessed by students. Sure, there are limitations, but they’re usually related to school safety/security concerns. This right can also be curtailed when speech results in significant disruption of the education process.
Granted, this lawsuit presents only one side of the story. But there’s very little in here that even hints at the overriding concerns the school needed to have in place before punishing students for using the word “pickle.”
And this email from one of the administrators to G.K.’s father (the police officer) certainly doesn’t allege anything rational about their response to a non-event they chose to make an event by going after anyone in pickle gear.
Dawes defended the decision in an email to Kenny Kushner on Monday obtained by the Star, saying that administrators were afraid that continued “frenetic energy around Little Pickle” might lead to another “mob or riot.”
Oddly, it’s the police officer offering a rational take on the administrators’ behavior:
“I was really taken aback,” Kenny Kushner said. “It felt so overreaching.“
This is from someone who actually knows something about mobs, riots, and official overreach.
The proper response to these shirts was to do nothing. In a few weeks, everyone would have moved on and the Lil Pickle incident would be nothing more than a footnote in the school’s history. Instead, two administrators decided students were not allowed to show their support for a fellow student. The actual motivation appears to have been embarrassment, not fear of a “mob or riot.” And that inability to do nothing when faced with implicit criticism is likely going to see this school racking up a loss in court.
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