By Ayesha Audu
In January 2017, students from a small high school in northern California created an Instagram account in which they uploaded horrific and racist images. In one image, an African American female classmate was likened to a gorilla. In another image, the school’s African American basketball coach and a female African American basketball player were depicted with bright yellow nooses around their necks. The students then invited other students to join the page, some of whom then liked and/or commented on the images in agreeance.
For months, the page remained active. After a student alerted administration of the page and the images, the school moved to discipline the students who created the page, as well as those who liked or commented on the images. On May 1, 2017, four boys who had liked or commented on the images, and who were among those disciplined, filed suit against the school district. In addition to various other arguments, they argue that the First Amendment protected their online activity and that the school does not have the authority to take action in response to their activity. They do not address the ways in which their decision to promote and advance depictions similar to those from the Jim Crow Era disrupted the educational environment of the targeted students and faculty and the school community at large.
Indeed, as the boys argue that the school district should remove the suspensions on their records, the girls are left to their own battles. They must wake up every morning knowing that their classmates supported and shared images that treated them as less than human. They must focus on their schoolwork while sitting in the same class as classmates who support the perpetrators. Targets of cyber-hate, like these students, are more likely to report depression and are at risk of feeling isolated and withdrawn in school, therefore threatening their ability to learn and thrive. They may also experience migraines and nightmares, and lose motivation.
The targets face ongoing harm that disrupts their education and the education of their classmates. We cannot lose sight of this in the midst of the legal battle between the boys and the school determining whether the First Amendment protects the Instagram activity at issue here. Despite the countless scientific studies that have demonstrated the physical and mental health effects of racism, including the online activity at issue here, in the public sphere, these effects are generally ignored or considered evidence of the hypersensitivity of a self-victimizing race. The experience of the targeted girls is representative of a large population of the country- the community of blacks, Latinos, women, LGBT individuals, Muslims, people with disabilities– who are told the forms of verbal, mental and emotional abuse they suffer from hate speech are insufficient to warrant action. This action may include legal action, but it also requires community action – speaking out against hate and those that seek to divide.
Earlier this month, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed an amicus brief voicing these concerns. The Committee argues that under the standard put forth in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the images would lead to substantial disruption of school activities, and by the very nature of the images, threaten the right of others to be secure and let alone.
In today’s contentious climate, racist remarks are rationalized as bulwarks against imposed politically correct speech and censorship. Left unaddressed, images and speech that depict the “other” as animals or in other grotesque ways are a stone’s throw to larger forms of abuse. After all, the Nazis depicted Jews as rats before committing mass genocide, Asian Americans were depicted as sharp fanged animals in WWII before internment camps, and blacks in America were portrayed as violent, simple apes at the apex of the Jim Crow era. Such images and speech are particularly dehumanizing and disruptive in the school context. As the amicus brief argues, “hateful social media activity, like the Instagram “likes” and comments reportedly at issue here, inflicts serious harm on students and school communities. Confronted by such activity, school officials are entitled to act.”