A Teenager Shall Lead Them

I’ve written before about the resort to force and intimidation in discussions of Palestinian-Israeli issues, but here’s an outrageous case– and one that hits close to home. From The New York Times, “Tweets About Israel Land New Jersey Student in Principal’s Office“:

A New Jersey high school student found herself in a social media storm on Wednesday after she live-tweeted and apparently secretly recorded a trip to her principal’s office.

She said administrators warned her that her comments about Israel and a fellow student on Twitter might have violated a state law against bullying.

The student, Bethany Koval, a 16-year-old Israeli Jew, said she had been reprimanded by administrators at Fair Lawn High School in Bergen County for a tweet that contained a string of expletives directed at Israel and expressed happiness that a pro-Israel classmate had unfollowed her Twitter account.

New Jersey has some of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the nation. After the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, in 2010, it passed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, a far-reaching law with stiff penalties for educators who do not sufficiently respond to complaints of harassment or intimidation.

Read the whole thing for a fuller account of the story. Here’s a January 7 story from the Bergen Record, and here’s a January 8 story from the same place. Muftah reproduces some of the tweets involved. (Unfortunately, Koval’s Twitter feed is no longer operating in the public domain.) Fair Lawn, by the way, is just a few towns west of Lodi, where I teach.

Setting aside whatever narrowly legalistic insanities may reside within the various “anti-bullying” statutes, this is not a morally complex matter. A high school student tweets her political views about Israel. Some of what she says contains profanity. Some is sympathetic to, or appeasing of, Hamas. Some of her peers don’t like what she says. She gets some verbal flak from some of them. One “unfollows” her Twitter account. She doesn’t reveal the “unfollower’s” name in public, but reveals it to someone privately.

These essentially uncontroversial actions by a politically-engaged sixteen year old trigger outright hysteria by the adults who are supposed to know better–and are supposed to be educating her. They reprimand her, intimidate her, interrogate her, search her personal belongings, make arbitrary (and ridiculous) legal threats, and on top of everything, manage to produce the following account of their actions for public consumption:

 “At no time have District officials sought to censor or reprimand any pupils for their online speech,” Mr. Watson wrote. “The investigation is focused solely on the factors we are required to apply by law and not upon any political opinions expressed by any pupils.”

If I weren’t worried about trigger-happy defamation attorneys, I would call this a bald faced lie. So I won’t call it that. I just invite you to ask yourself what other description it deserves. If Koval engaged in online speech, and she is a pupil, and District officials have not only “sought to censor or reprimand” her, but have in fact done so, what conceivable truth can there be in a flat denial that they have done exactly what they have done? How can adults–professional educators–non-culpably bring themselves to believe that when you reprimand and bring legal threats against one of your students for her online speech, you are not reprimanding and bringing legal threats against one of your students for her online speech?

Suppose that these so-called educators try to hide behind the fig leaf of the anti-bullying laws. Still, when you reprimand someone in the name of the law, does it cease to be a reprimand? Even if the law requires you to investigate someone’s speech–which is entirely about politics–as well as to reprimand and threaten legal action against them, how can it make even minimal sense to say that you are not investigating them on the basis of the content of the speech? How can comments about Israel violate the anti-bullying laws simply qua comments about Israel–and how can legal action against such comments not be political in nature? A country can’t be bullied, and even if it could, the bullying of nation-states is not the subject matter of the laws of the State of New Jersey. Even if you want to claim that high school students lack full constitutional rights of free speech, no one at Fair Lawn High School seems able or willing to produce a single bona fide reason why this student’s speech should be censored, or why the student herself should be treated this way.

The student’s invocation of Hamas provides another fig leaf for the invocation of “bullying.” Here’s what she said about Hamas:

Hamas is not extreme: Hamas is just painted that way Hateful rhetoric against Hamas is what allowed the Gaza bombing https://t.co/eprM2ahGHV

— benny (@bendykoval) December 23, 2015

This claim strikes me as naive and uninformed in the extreme, but its truth or falsity is not the point. The claim is highly contestable, and ought to be contested. Contestation is what free speech is about, whether you’re denying that Hamas is extreme, or you’re denying that Israel really occupies the West Bank or Gaza.* The principle of free speech applies to speech about Hamas, and even applies to speech sympathetic to Hamas.** Sympathy for Hamas is, or at least should be, a thinkable and publicly articulable thought in the United States (or anywhere), whether for purposes of affirmation or negation, for defense or refutation. If you can’t handle this fact, you don’t believe in free speech. And if you feel “bullied” by someone’s expressing sympathy for Hamas–even misguided sympathy–you really need to grow up.

It’s apparent that plenty of mid-level education bureaucrats in New Jersey’s public schools don’t believe in free speech, and that plenty of adults in this state (and country) need to grow up. Their attitudes suggest in turn that what we need in this state–and this country–is a dose, not just of the narrow libertarian defense of free speech against coercive interference (though we need that), but J.S. Mill’s defense in “On Liberty” of the whole ethos of free speech and of its relation to truth-seeking inquiry. That’s what we seem to be losing. I wonder who in our high schools could teach it–or for that matter who in our high schools has read it.

So what we’re left with in the way of alleged reprimand- and censorship-worthy malfeasance by this student is this: someone unfollowed her Twitter account, and she had the audacity to mention the student’s name to someone in private. I can scarcely think of anything more frightening: what could be scarier than someone’s talking about your actions in private? But let’s change the facts somewhat. Imagine that Koval had trumpeted the name of the “unfollower” to the whole world. How is that bullying? How is it even wrong?

Here is one concerned mom’s lachrymose attempt at an explanation:

“Fair Lawn used to be a safe place for my family,” Vaxman told Daily Voice. “Seeing different faiths work so well together and respected by one another used to be the best thing about this town. I never feared for my or my children’s safety and I know they are receiving the best education.”

“As a parent, I fully support the school for doing the best that they can to keep our children safe from harm, on and off school grounds,” Vaxman added. “I think we parents have a duty to show our support and not allow the school staff to be persecuted by the media for simply attempting to protect our children.”

Fair Lawn used to be safe, but then it was “persecuted” by…media scrutiny over the legal threats initiated by its high school administrators. Time was when the “children” of Fair Lawn–the high school “children,” that is–were “safe from harm,” but now…a Big Bad Sixteen Year Old  threatens to draw blood with her Twitter feed. How can we expect adult behavior of incoming college freshmen in a milieu in which their parents have regressed to the level of children? File the whole hysterical charade under “The Fair Lawn Pogrom: When Free Speech Came to Town.”

How have we managed to reach a state of affairs when an action so banal has become the predicate for government officials’ threatening legal action against the speech of a sixteen year old high school student? Put another way: how did we manage to get from a law intended to protect someone against being covertly filmed and publicly broadcast in a consensual sex act in the privacy of his bedroom–to a law whose effect is to wield the power of the state against a minor whose “crime” consists in the private assertion of an undeniable, innocuous truth?

And please, don’t even bother me with the alleged “offense” of recording the principal. There’s no offense there, just common sense. What her recording makes obvious is that principals and administrators like the ones at Fair Lawn should be operating on a 9-5 webcam, for just the reasons and in just the way that people have demanded that police departments do so. These administrators can neither think nor speak coherently, and when they do open their mouths, what they reflexively emit is unadulterated bullshit. I wouldn’t trust any of them any farther than I could throw them: they’re less the bona fide educators than the proto-Eichmanns of our milieu, and the more scrutiny they get, the better. They know how to follow orders, they know how to intimidate those who don’t follow orders, but as for knowing how to educate, or knowing what education is, forget it.

It shouldn’t be a mystery why students come to universities like Felician from high schools like Fair Lawn High lacking even minimal capacities for political discourse: they’ve never exercised those capacities, and never been given the opportunity to do so. Look at the environment in which they operate and the role models they have. Aristotle famously called us logikon animals. What these schools are producing are, at best, emoticon animals, habituated to lash out in anger when your speech produces the wrong emo-ji in their distempered psyches. It’s bad enough that our baseline for political discourse is now the Twitter feed. But if Twitter feeds are going to be censored by unaccountable (an unaccountably powerful) mid-level bureaucrats like James Marcella and Bruce Watson–and we allow it–free speech will have died an ignominious death in this country by virtue of our failure to give it the kind of defense it deserves.

We need to push back on these people–and push hard. They need to grasp–unmistakably grasp–that behavior of the kind exhibited by Fair Lawn High (and its citizens-supporters) is not just unacceptable, but won’t be accepted. If necessary, we need to change the laws, or change the gloss on those laws. We need to confront both the administrators and their supporters at public meetings (or at their pro-censorship demonstrations). And when necessary and possible, we need to hand out some pink slips, and show some of these overpaid and under-educated bureaucrats the door.

In short, we need the kind of candor and courage exhibited by the rare sixteen year old who stands up and fights back. I’ll give her the last word:

They use ‘bullying’ as a guise to cover their pro-Israel, pro-censorship agenda. …

Threatened to file a bullying case against me. It’s against state law to express unpopular political views on the Internet, now.

— benny (@bendykoval) Jan. 6, 2016

__________________________________________

 *Speaking of contestation: I don’t mean to bully anyone who believes otherwise, but the International Criminal Court still regards Gaza as occupied, despite the 2005 disengagement. See pp. 16ff, paragraphs 28ff.

**By chance, I happened on the application form for the Police Auxiliary in my town, Bloomfield, New Jersey. One section of it (scroll to the bottom) asks for what it calls the applicant’s “social history.” Every question in this section revolves around the applicant’s “subversive” tendencies by the following definition of subversion:

The term “subversive organization” means any group or organization which supports, follows, or which sympathizes with the principles of any subversive doctrine which advocates the overthrow of the United States government or any other state or local government by force, violence or other unlawful means.

So if you’re associated with a group that sympathizes with any of the principles of Marxist-Leninism or Islamism you’re probably not going to make the cut.

Well, we have plenty of Marxist-sympathizing subversives right here at PoT. So much for Gordon Barnes’s or Hendrik Van Den Berg’s candidacies for the Bloomfield Auxiliary  Police… (By the way, our leftist Gordon Barnes should firmly be distinguished from this leftist Gordon Barnes–who sounds like a real bottle thrower, and really has no chance of making the cut). I don’t think I have a chance, either. But I’ll plead the Fifth on why. I can still do that, right?

Postscript: Here is the Fair Lawn School Superintendent’s statement to the public. Fair warning: they can call the completed report “confidential,” but I’ll be seeking a copy of it via FOIA (and I’m sure others will be as well). The New Jersey Department of Education can feel free to redact “confidential information” (including the name of Bethany Koval, supposedly confidential, but now in the public domain), but the public has a right to know the basis for this investigation and how it was conducted.  As a university-level educator in Bergen County, I have a special interest in knowing how HIB cases are being investigated, and what constitutes a warranted trigger for one. There are, frankly, limits to how much we can be expected to put up with in the way of opacity, incoherence, irrationality, and intimidation in our public officials in the name of “education.”

(See the comments for further postscripts.) 

7 thoughts on “A Teenager Shall Lead Them

    • Marx calls for the overthrow of capitalist regimes in The Communist Manifesto, and Leninist forms of Marxism are even more explicit about it. That doesn’t mean that every Marxist wants to overthrow the U.S. government, but every Marxist has sympathy for a doctrine that promotes the overthrow of governments like the American one. If sympathy is all it takes to disqualify you for candidacy for the Police Auxiliary, then being a Marxist might well disqualify you.

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  1. I was in the grocery store just now, and noticed that the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine (February 2016, with Megyn Kelly on the cover) has an apt quotation from Herman Melville:

    Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.

    That aphorism turns out to have application here. Without taking back a word of what I’ve said, I do need to complicate the story. As it happens, there’s plenty of blame to go around here, and I’m very happy to do the job of spreading it.

    First, the mainstream press. In the post above, I cited five stories from four sources (The New York Times, The Bergen Record, Muftah, The Voice). Though I didn’t cite them, I’d also read the stories in the Gothamist, Mondoweiss, and a few other places. All of these sources report that Koval privately mentioned the “unfollowing” student’s name to someone else, but none gave details about the context. Actually, the details matter, and explain (without justifying) why Fair Lawn High School launched an investigation in the first place.

    The relevant set of tweets exchanged goes as follows. The immediate context is that a pro-Israeli interlocutor in the discussion had just “unfollowed” Koval’s Twitter account. Koval rejoices that the person (evidently a student) had left, and says “Fuck Israel” over and over. Then someone with the handle “PhD in Bein Ugly @L_Chevere” tweets to Koval: “WHO [GO] TELL THEM TO SQUARE THE FUCK UP IM READY TO FIGHT.” Koval responds: “YOU’RE MY FAVORITE LOCAL. I’M DMING YOU THEIR NAMES RN.” In English, L_Chevere is saying “Go tell them to square up for a fight,” and Koval sends “their names” (i.e., one name, with “their” used as a clumsy way of concealing the fact that the person is female). In other words, Koval is responding to the mention of a fight by saying she’s going to send the names right now (“RN”).

    I discovered this tweet after spending some time at the Facebook page for “Support FLHS Administration.” I shouldn’t have had to. This is obviously the trigger for the whole “bullying” investigation. I’m afraid it makes Koval look like a bit of an asshole. It also involves the phrase “square the fuck up, I’m ready to fight,” which is missing from the whole of the mainstream discussion of the episode, and whose absence lends an air of mystery where none needs to be. The failure to mention this tweet also fuels the partly justifiable suspicion that the mainstream media is more interested in telling a simplistic left-oriented story about a persecuted champion of free speech than in dealing with the story’s jagged edges. But those edges are there. This isn’t the first time the mainstream press (including The Times) has fumbled a story of this sort. And it probably won’t be the last. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed.

    That said, I don’t think that this tweet can do the work that FLHS or its supporters would like it to do. First, a factual unclarity: L_Chevere has both been described as a stranger and as a student at FLHS. That needs to be clarified. Second, the word “fight” comes from L_Chevere, not Koval. So if anyone should have been investigated, it was L_Chevere, not Koval. Third, “square up for a fight” can mean, but need not mean, “Let’s have a physical fight.” We all know what it means to “fight City Hall,” or “fight the power,” or “fight this,” where “this” is something unpleasant. L_Chevere probably needs a talking-to, but it is a gigantic over-reaction to suggest that this Tweet is bullying or should be treated as actionable assault or requires legal threats by the school. If that is how the law is currently written, the law is a bigger threat to us than this ridiculous exchange. And regardless of the blackletter status of the law, it is a significant miscarriage of justice to threaten someone with legal action, as the school did, and refuse to allow them to get the advice of either counsel, parents, or guardians. If an adult is entitled to counsel, why think that a 16-year-old faced with legal action can handle it without legal advice of any kind? Amazingly, the parents supporting FLHS see no “bullying” in this, but they see “bullying” by Koval in an ambiguous tweet by someone other than Koval.

    Second, we have the law to blame–and all of the lobbyists, lawyers, legislators, and executives who worked together to make it a reality, exploiting Tyler Clementi’s memory to advance their pious, feel-good, freedom-destroying agenda. You’ll have to consult a lawyer for the details, but as written, the law seems designed to produce the outcome we’ve seen. “Harrassment, Intimidation, and Bullying” is impossibly vague, but the law demands zero tolerance for them–whatever they end up being. Reporting requirements are impossibly stringent. Students’ rights to free speech are considered defeasible at will. Schools are regarded as institutions with a paternalistic function. School administrators function as narcs, cops, judges,and juries all at once without accountability to anyone. False accusation is pro forma punishable, but given the vagueness of the charges involved, that doesn’t matter very much.

    And of course, transparency takes a back seat to confidentiality, even in cases that make international headlines. Cases like FLHS become precedents for everyone, but cases like FLHS are also privileged, both legally and by custom; legally, everything important is “confidential,” and as a matter of custom, if you’re not from Fair Lawn, you’re not a stakeholder and don’t count. Finally, the anti-bullying fanatics have exploited just the issue one needs to exploit to get a free pass for the expression of complete, all-out hysteria: since no one can legitimately be in favor of bullying, any critic of their agenda becomes a defender of bullying; since teenage speech is actually pretty stupid, and stupider yet when it takes place on Twitter, the relative triviality of the speech itself gives the impression that free speech ought to have a low priority; and since we have a few famous cases of bullying leading to death, everyone now feels entitled to pretend that anything that looks like it kinda sorta might be bullying could very well lead to the next child suicide.

    Closely related to the second constituency is a third, which is really part of the second. Now, the advocates of anti-bullying legislation have all decided to come out and soft-pedal what just happened in Fair Lawn. Anti-bullying legislation is just fine, they say; Fair Lawn overreacted. Yes, Fair Lawn overreacted, but it doesn’t follow that anti-bullying legislation is just fine. We need to consider the possibility (I would say the probability) that the legislation itself is the problem, and is enabling the over-reactions that our civil libertarians are now conveniently denouncing. It’s not so easy to soften things by appeal to “overreaction.” Truth has ragged edges, and some of those, I suspect, are buried in our laws–and in the thousands if not millions of dollars of billable hours devoted to glossing and explaining those laws in “tutorials” (86 page PDF) intended to dumb down and operationalize what the law says.

    It’s time for us not to take the easy way out. The easy way out would be to dismiss what just happened and move on until we collide head-first with the next bout of hysteria. The time has come to stop the hysteria-producing machinery in its tracks. Our legislators need to hear from us, the New Jersey Board of Education needs to hear from us, our high schools needs to hear from us, and the anti-bullying industry (and its enablers) needs to hear from us. By “us,” I mean educators, advocates of free speech, and advocates of plain common sense. This is a juggernaut that’s careened out of control. It’s time to control it before it controls us.

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  2. Really glad I got to read this. I’ve always knew there were issues relevant to bullying in our country, but I hadn’t realized it has gotten to be this shitty. Especially the fact that these supposed tensions flared on a site that is so called “monitored”. I mean lets be honest, we can’t entirely blame the problem on legislation. After-all there’s never just one side of any story. Nowadays Twitter is used by teenagers (and sadly younger ages as well) as a means of perpetuating a certain “identity” to the masses. An identity that 9 times out of 10 is intended to fit in with pop culture. Which when you really think about it, possibly explains the reason we the Millennial Generation are being classified as tech-savvy/entrepreneurial yet lazy and self obsessed. Social media is constantly feeding the concept of superficiality in my opinion, and it seems that authenticity has become the black sheep.

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    • The legislation is a bigger problem than the Millenials’ laziness and narcissism (though I’m not disputing that those traits are there and a problem). Some forms of social media do drive superficiality, especially about politics, but eventually intelligent people should be able to figure out that you can’t talk about politics in an intelligent way on Twitter (or even Facebook). But the realization is gradual, and I wouldn’t expect high school sophomores to make it by their junior year. It takes time.

      But improvement is a lost cause in a culture that’s so sensitive that it sees “bullying” everywhere–sees “verbal assault” in profanity and raised voices–and then starts to internalize censorship. That doesn’t keep anyone “safe.” It just makes progress impossible, and makes the already-existing narcissism even worse. (Actually, the columnist Michael Kinsley has a nice piece on this subject in the issue of Vanity Fair I mentioned, but it’s not online.) If you work through the anti-bullying legislation, you realize that it turns all of education into kindergarten education–except that the kindergarten is policed by real-live “kindergarten cops.”

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