Updated: Dec 31, 2020
The authority of schools which have, until now, governed our bodies and minds in the classroom has come into question as it now tries to justify its reach into our virtual classroom. Kenton Vizdos was suspended from Henrico, Virginia’s Deep Run High school for testing the limits of his constitutionally protected free speech by projecting inflammatory Black Lives Matter propaganda instead of turning on his camera during class. Where other classmates had put their faces and workstations as they tried to follow the teacher’s lessons, he had put a slideshow which included, among other things, the claim that certain modern day policemen were “slave catchers.” Naturally, this type of repudiation of government institutions incites unease in the classroom environment, and one of the teachers reported the violation of Henrico County’s Student Code of Conduct to Deep Run administration. Attempts to coordinate with the student and the student’s family were unsuccessful, since the family defended their son’s actions, and the school turned to suspension as a resolution to the conflict. The Virginia ACLU leapt to the student’s defense and will represent the family in court as they pursue litigation against Henrico County. Uproar has ensued, as people who support Kenton’s message feel that this censorship is wrong, while others defend the sanctity of the classroom as a learning environment instead of a political platform.
In evaluating this circumstance from a constitutional and moral perspective, it is important to distance ourselves from the protest itself and instead look to the medium of protest. A variety of popular social media posts in the past few months have argued that there is no “right way to protest,” but constitutional standards nevertheless exist. Giving an arbitrarily unlimited standard of protest, while it coincides with many people’s political agenda, would result in anarchy. There are limits to what can be constitutionally protected as protest if it violates the state interest. The relevant state interest in this specific case is the education of students. The 1969 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines, established the “substantial disruption test” to determine whether or not student protest is permissible. In response to students wearing black armbands as a form of protest against the Vietnam War, the Court found that symbolic student protest was allowed if it did not cause a substantial disruption to the education. The subsequent question is complicated: what is a “substantial disruption”?
According to Vizdos, there is no substantial disruption because the class is online, so students can turn off his video if they are distracted by his protest. Moreover, he claims to have found a workaround to the Student Code of Conduct by projecting a video through his webcam instead of using a virtual background like the policy forbids. This argument, although seemingly sound, heavily depends on the virtual context due to its technicalities. Given that student free speech has only been tested in physical contexts (and even then, the precedent is limited), courts have very little experience mediating these types of conflict. In person, students’ speech can be more justifiably regulated because the impact takes place within a defined area under state control, but since virtual education’s geographic location is out in cyberspace, a school’s legal authority becomes less defined.
A fair assessment of this particular case will be difficult considering today’s political climate, but the questions it poses are absolutely essential to our democracy today. Political openness may be necessary for today’s problems, but as for the question of where that political openness ought to occur, that is a different story that can be more fervently debated. We often neglect to realize that the classroom is a government regulated forum for a reason. Students from all walks of life are compelled by the state to attend, so having political speech which is purposefully polarizing could reflect poorly on the state. A government effectively sponsors its students by permitting them to speak freely in such an environment, and we have a vested interest in preventing that from excessively harming students’ learning. The same way I do not wish to have someone else’s religion shoved down my throat while I am trying to learn, they would not wish that I shove my political views down theirs, and the government has a duty to respect both of those interests. Thus, it can be established that some regulations on free speech and protest can be justifiable.
In total review of this particular situation, however, there is not sufficient reason to curtail freedom of speech. The classroom disturbance, while understandably inconvenient for students, can effectively be eliminated at any and all student’s discretion. Although teachers felt disturbed by Vizdos’s message, the “substantial disruption test” does not consider the teacher as a unique entity, nor should it. Teachers cannot limit their own job duties based on their dissatisfaction with student speech the same way that a teacher could not refuse to teach a student who expressed a contrary viewpoint in a physical classroom environment.
Constitutional evolution has always been subject to the expansion of technology, and first amendment rights are no exception to the rule. Reviewing the protest in the context of its audience and location becomes so much more complex than media outlets could ever fully convey, and this may prompt us to reduce the issue into simple, understandable terms. However, in doing so, we neglect the multidimensional aspects of these issues and their implications in future cases. Throwing your support behind Vizdos today implies a similar support for any student who puts religious or, alternatively, anti-religious messages instead of Black Lives Matter messages. Would opinions swap if this was the case? Would our opinions change if the person believed that Blue Lives Matter? The content neutrality of our government structures requires that we pay close attention to all of these factors when considering these issues and their potential repercussions.
If you support Vizdos’s case because you support Black Lives Matter, this is not the political event for you to focus on. Whatever the court decides on this topic will extend far beyond that.
Varun Mandgi is a critical writer and columnist for the Incandescent Review. He is a high school senior from Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, VA who specializes in philosophy and political theory. Contact him at email@example.com or comment on this piece with inquiries or recommendations.