Advocates say punishment over Brownsville Area 'Harlem Shake' video violates rights
Two national organizations are asking Brownsville Area School District to expunge the suspensions of 13 high school students who made a “Harlem Shake” dance video during school and later posted it on the Internet.
The suspensions violate the students' right to free expression, said the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in a letter sent to the district Thursday.
“Dance is a form of expression. It's protected by the First Amendment,” Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said Thursday.
Students involved in the Feb. 18 filming of the 27-second video were given two-day suspensions by Superintendent Philip J. Savini the following day. The tape was made in a classroom while a substitute teacher was present.
The “Harlem Shake” is a dance fad that has grown; about 260,000 videos replicating the dance moves have been posted on the Internet.
District Solicitor James Davis said the suspended students did not follow instructions from the substitute teacher so administrators determined the students' actions violated the disciplinary code.
“We don't frame the issue as an issue involving a dance,” Davis said. “We have a teacher who is trying to maintain proper decorum in the classroom.”
School board President R.W. “Rocky” Brashear called the video “vulgar.”
Out of 96 calls he received about the student suspensions, 92 callers were “appalled” by the video, he said.
The props and vulgar movements were “in very poor taste” and offensive.”
“I'm not in favor of lifting the suspensions,” Brashear said.
As school suspensions for “Harlem Shake” videos began occurring around the country, the censorship coalition started tracking them, said Acacia O'Connor, coordinator of The Kids' Right to Read Project with the coalition. More than 100 students nationwide have been suspended for “Harlem Shake” videos, according to the coalition website.
The suspensions are being issued for “not a lot of good reasons” and hindering students' freedom of expression, she said. The students did not cause any disruptions or damage any school property, Walczak said.
The organizations teamed up to send Brownsville a letter and they could seek legal recourse if the district refuses to lift the suspensions, O'Connor said. She had not heard a response from the district by Thursday afternoon.
Davis did not know if administrators would expunge the out-of-school suspensions — which have been served — from the students' records.
The students could face future problems, such as the loss of a college scholarship, O'Connor said.
Parent Kathy Broadwater said her sophomore daughter, who was suspended for the video, will not be permitted to take part in certain activities, including the National Honor Society or homecoming court, for the rest of her high school career.
“To a high school girl, this is all very important,” Broadwater said.
She said the district has denied requests to expunge her daughter's suspension.
Other school districts around the country could be receiving similar letters, O'Connor said.
Suspensions for “Harlem Shake” videos have occurred in Michigan, Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, according to the coalition's compilation.
Thursday was not the first time the ACLU has contacted Brownsville.
The district settled a federal lawsuit last June after the ACLU sought a temporary restraining order in April on behalf of the mother of an eighth-grader to prevent the school from punishing the girl for exercising her right to free speech. The student wanted to remain seated while her classmates stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, according to the suit.
High school students in a Gay Straight Alliance seeking to have an announcement read over a loudspeaker and to wear T-shirts to observe a National Day of Silence on April 20 were denied permission by a Brownsville administrator last spring. The ACLU asserted the group's right to commemorate the day of awareness.
In 2010, the district reached a financial settlement with a teacher who was suspended in connection with photos depicting her, fully-clothed, with a male stripper that were posted on the Internet. Directors initially imposed a 30-day suspension after the photos from a bachelorette party were forwarded to administrators. The ACLU stepped in, the suspension was cut short and the teacher received back pay for 19 days she missed.
Renatta Signorini is a staff write for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Man’s body found in car in Forbes State Forest
- Union Cemetery plot owners, heirs of deceased sought to sort out details of ownership
- Parking ban on New Stanton street discriminatory, property manager alleges
- Former Ligonier Township supervisor’s case heads to trial
- Armstrong County man near deal in animal cruelty case
- Geyer Performing Arts Center hosts AAFC production of ‘Murder on the Nile’
- Latrobe police seek driver of red cargo van
- Westmoreland register of wills plans to retire
- Missing North Irwin man returns home
- Woman injured in fire at Jeannette home
- Greensburg officer kicked in forehead, woman charged