The right to do stupid things
A racially tinged case of high school harassment in Pennsylvania that turned violent was bad enough. Then the adults got involved and made it worse.
A 14-year-old white boy used exceptionally poor judgment last October when he secretly made a video of a 16-year-old black student, who had recently transferred to the school, eating chicken wings in the cafeteria.
In narrating the clip for social media, the 14-year-old repeatedly used ethnic slurs and other insults to describe the older teen. When the 16-year-old found out about it, he attacked the younger kid with kicks and punches — a response that was wrong but understandable. He reportedly gave the 14-year-old a concussion.
The black student faced a juvenile court hearing for assault, and has accepted probation that will allow him to avoid a conviction. But now the local district attorney has decided to file juvenile court charges against the white student for “ethnic intimidation and harassment.”
The DA said he found the video in question to be outrageous, insulting, demeaning and racially disparaging. Which it certainly is. The 14-year-old is getting the same offer as the other student: He will have an opportunity to avoid charges by completing probation.
The larger question, though, is whether free speech rights extend to teenagers, even when they choose to do stupid things at school out of sheer spite and ignorance. This is one of those unhappy times when you’re forced to conclude that rights do indeed protect the video.
Even the white student’s attorney acknowledged that the video was offensive. But he added that the black student’s attack was worse. In a court of law, he would be correct, as judges have held repeatedly that the First Amendment’s free speech rights do not cover violent acts.
Aside from being outrageous and insulting and all that, the video was an invasion of privacy. Recording the video, and then making it public, had to be some sort of violation of school policy. Ideally, it would be the school’s job to discipline the student.
The district attorney is correct to be offended by what the white student did. But just where do we draw this line? If a kid can be taken to juvenile court for insulting somebody’s race, what should the charges be against those who insult the overweight or the handicapped? And if a white student is mistreated in this fashion at a black-majority school, are black teens going to be hauled into court for allegations of racial insensitivity? Using the standards of this district attorney, probably 20 percent of the content on social media is “criminal.”
The big lesson from this episode is that even though you may have the right to do something, that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. With rights come responsibilities, and the white student who made the video did not come anywhere close to that standard.
He deserves to be punished — by his school and hopefully by his parents. He does not, regrettably, deserve to be taken to juvenile court on charges of ethnic intimidation.
Jack Ryan, Enterprise-Journal
Upset was good for most
Thank goodness for Clemson. Some diehard Southeastern Conference fans in Mississippi may not be pleased that the Tigers upset conference juggernaut Alabama 35-31 in Monday’s college football championship game, but the outcome was good for the sport.
The Crimson Tide’s national dominance under coach Nick Saban was getting terribly boring.
While Clemson was making a repeat appearance in the title game, it had not won the national championship in 35 years. Meanwhile Alabama, with Saban’s brilliance both as a coach and as a recruiter, had thoroughly dominated the sport and was on the brink of winning its fifth championship in eight seasons.
Clemson pulled the trick in the most unlikely of fashions, scoring 21 fourth-quarter points to rally from a 10-point deficit against a defense that had averaged giving up less than a field goal per fourth quarter in its previous 14 games. Moreover, in 97 previous games in which Saban’s Alabama teams were ahead by double digits entering the fourth quarter, they had not lost a single one.
Monday’s game was an instant classic, with the outcome in the balance until one second was left on the clock. The result was beneficial for most everyone except ’Bama.
Will Hood pursue ‘tainted juror’?
Attorney General Jim Hood gave the distinct impression last week that the juror who allegedly caused the mistrial in his prosecution of Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith was biased in favor of acquitting Smith.
Not so, says the juror who tipped off presiding Judge Larry Roberts that one member of the panel had prior knowledge of Smith and failed to disclose it during jury selection.
Juror Anna Scott told The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson that the juror in question, Sharron Sullivan, who works as a dispatcher in the Jackson Police Department, was predisposed to convict Smith of hindering the prosecution of a criminal defendant and was trying to persuade other members of the panel to follow her lead.
It will be interesting to see what Hood, who was in high dudgeon last week over the mistrial and the attendant waste of taxpayers’ money, will now do with this information.
What he should do is open an investigation into whether Sullivan committed perjury during jury questioning. It is possible that she misunderstood the questions posed to her and the other possible jurors. It is also possible that she intentionally lied.
If she did the latter, she should be prosecuted for it. That’s the only way to send the message to the public that sitting on a jury is serious business, and intentional deception — whether designed to get off a jury or on it — cannot be tolerated.
Too often in the criminal justice system, there are no personal consequences for lying under oath. Perjury prosecutions are rare. As a result, not just jurors but witnesses, too, get the message that perjury is no big deal.
It should not matter to Hood, if he is living up to the responsibilities of his office, that the juror in question was supposedly on his side. A prosecutor is supposed to look at the evidence, without favor, and determine whether a crime has been committed.
To just let this matter of alleged juror deception die would taint Hood’s prosecution of Smith and reinforce the embattled district attorney’s claim that the attorney general is misusing his office to purse a personal vendetta.
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