No Punishment for Nazi Salutes: High School Free Speech Hypocrisies

Remember the prom photo that featured dozens of Wisconsin high school boys appearing to give a Nazi salute? Many Americans, including nearly 40,000 Care2 petition signers, called on the school to take disciplinary action the students, but the school district has announced it will be taking no such recourse.

“Because of the students’ First Amendment rights, the district is not in a position to punish the students for their actions,” said Baraboo School District Administrator Lori Mueller.

While it’s true that courts have determined that the First Amendment protects most forms of hate speech (aside from that of a violently threatening/intimidating nature,) it’s at least somewhat disingenuous to suggest that this matter comes down to a simple issue of free speech.

I say that because First Amendment protections for students are hardly without exceptions. For example, in a school setting, free speech doesn’t usually include the right to swear, assuming the school has rules against using profanity. Saying “fuck” in class can earn you a detention, and good luck getting a court to say otherwise. To that extent, if students were to give the middle finger in a school photo, they could expect repercussions for the rude gesture – so why not a Nazi salute?

The same goes for dress codes. Most teens view their clothing as a mode of expression, and when schools put restrictions on what colors, types of garments, etc. students can wear, they’re definitely stifling that form of speech. The Supreme Court has not directly weighed in on the constitutionality of dress codes except to say in a 1969 case that students had the right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

As the ACLU explains, the guiding principle tends to be that free speech can be curtailed when it is considered disruptive to school. Are Nazi signals not the kind of actions that many students would consider highly distracting? Since this photo went viral, several peers have spoken up about the pattern of racial epithets and mistreatment of minorities on campus, and perhaps worse, the school’s utter apathy toward addressing the situation. How can students receive a good education while feeling threatened by their fellow students?

As a strong supporter of the First Amendment, I’d be inclined to agree with Baraboo’s free speech defense if I couldn’t see how much the state of Wisconsin was trying to simultaneously curtail free speech rights in academic settings. The Wisconsin State Assembly passed legislation to make it illegal for students to protest or disrupt speakers on campus, and the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents subsequently passed a policy to suspend or expel students who did just that.

What that means is that people who protest or try to shout down someone using hate speech – or, say, making a Nazi salute – is actually liable to get expelled. Basically, the state is choosing to protect the part of the First Amendment that allows people to say hateful things while ignoring the people’s right to counter that hate. How disturbingly convenient!

Take Action

While Baraboo High School may ultimately decide not to level punishments against students for these gestures, continue to sign the Care2 petition to ensure that school administrators know we aren’t forgetting this incident. At the least, the school should feel a burden to proactively change the bigoted culture that prevails in the hallways, so let’s keep applying pressure to make sure this actually happens!

46 comments

Roxana Saez
Roxana Saezyesterday

TYFS

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Annabel Bedini
Annabel Bedini9 days ago

Dan B
Yes, exactly!!!!!

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Dan B
Dan Blossfeld10 days ago

Annabel B.,
Possibly something to the effect that these actions do not respresent the views of the school, faculty, or other students?

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Annabel Bedini
Annabel Bedini11 days ago

Dan B
I take your point. But prom photos are very much a part of high school life, I thought. I simply say I think it would have been better if the school had issued a statement on the question rather than pussy-footing around it.

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson11 days ago

Thank you.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld11 days ago

Annabel B.,
One last comment. How far should a school be able to go to curtail activities. This photo did not occur at the school or doing school hours. Hence, did not disrupt school activities. All schools have rules, but most do not apply when they are at home or with their parents.

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Annabel Bedini
Annabel Bedini12 days ago

Dan B
Here's an exerpt from a CNN report Protecting Nazi speech doesn't protect free speech: 'Peter Gust, the photographer, says that he was asking students to "wave goodbye,"and said that no one realized how the picture would look. Jordan Blue, one of the students in the picture, who refused to raise his hand, though, disputed that: "As soon as I heard the photographer say 'Raise your hand,' I knew what was going to happen." He knew how the picture looked, and he said other parents at the time were disturbed and objected to the photo.' Looking again at the photo it does seem that some students are simply waving goodby but with others it is definitely a Nazi salute.
I agree the way to deal with this is by education not disciplinary action but I disagree that the school was right to take no action at all. By refusing to condemn it, even if only verbally, they are making themselves complcit in an action no school should condone in its students.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld12 days ago

Annabel B.,
No. I think it is deplorable. However, we should aim to curtail it, not through punitive means, but education and compassion. As you stated, taught history. Most of these were not kids, but adults. Many were 18, others were 17. Perhaps if the parents were shamed, rather than the students, that would be more effective. I do feel that the school did the right thing by staying out of the matter.

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Annabel Bedini
Annabel Bedini13 days ago

Dan B
You sound as if you think it's acceptable for young people to be encouraged to indulge in provocative behaviour that belongs in a dark period of human history simply in the name of 'free speech'? This case is neither the far right nor the far left invoking the First Amendment to back up their own views (though this does happen of course). This is a question of kids being allowed to behave in an unacceptably offensive way apparently 'for fun'. There is NOTHING funny about the Nazi regime and these children should be taught that. So shame on the adults who allowed it. Let's leave free speech out of it, don't you think?

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Ann B
Ann B13 days ago

well the football players are disrespectful not standing for the national anthem...shooting at school----NO RESPECT..and why would anyone be surprised at this???? all the RULES NO LONGER APPLY to anyone

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