Scholar’s arrest for racist publish sparks free speech debate

Washington, May 19

The arrest of a Connecticut high school student accused of posting racist comments about a Black classmate on social media is being supported by civil rights advocates, but free speech groups are calling it an unusual move by police that raises First Amendment issues.

A 16-year-old student in a classroom at Fairfield Warde High School allegedly took a photo of a Black classmate and posted it on Snapchat on May 7 with a caption that included a racial slur and racist comments. 

Police in Fairfield, Connecticut, arrested the student on a state hate crime charge of ridicule on account of creed, religion, colour, denomination, nationality or race. 

The misdemeanor dating back to 1917 has been called an unconstitutional infringement on free speech rights by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and some law school professors.

Police did not identify the student who was arrested because of juvenile offender laws. The student also was charged with breach of peace.

While it is common for students to be disciplined by school officials for such comments, police and civil rights advocates said it is unusual for students to be arrested for what they say on social media if it does not involve threats, incitement or a pattern of harassment.

“Having racist ideas or sharing racist ideas is something that we actually protect,” said Emerson Sykes, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s national chapter. 

“Even if that viewpoint is offensive, even if it’s deplorable, we don’t want the government making the call about what’s OK to say and think and what is not. But we have limitations on that right.” Sykes, however, said he believed school officials would be justified in disciplining the student because of the disruption the posting caused.

Fairfield school officials, citing student privacy rights, declined to comment on whether the student was disciplined, but said the student is being held accountable.

The Greater Bridgeport NAACP had called for criminal charges for the Snapchat post. It is also calling for an arrest in another incident the following day in which the brother of the Black student targeted in the post was called racist slurs in a phone call, said the Rev D Stanley Lord, president of the NAACP chapter.

Police officials said they could not confirm details of the second incident, but are investigating a complaint involving juveniles and a possible racial slur, said during a phone call.

“It was shocking,” Lord said of the posting. “We have to send a strong message that behaviour like this won’t be tolerated in any school system.” The student who was targeted in the Snapchat post, Jamar Medor, told WABC-TV that he and his family are still shocked by the posting, and he had never experienced racism in school before. He said he stayed home from school one day because he didn’t feel comfortable.

“I just had no words when I saw it. I was so confused,” he said. — AP

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