It’s almost impossible to avoid a video of groups doing the “Harlem Shake” (at least the newest version of it) across the Web, but some students are finding that their 30-or-so seconds of online fame is coming at a fairly high cost.
According to the National Coalition against Censorship, about 100 students across the country have been suspended for making and posting their own version of the viral video on the Web. School districts have offered a variety of reasons for the suspensions, said NCAC Director Joan Bertin, with most saying that the videos, which feature suggestive dancing, are inappropriate. However, Bertin said, she believes that regardless of how the videos could be interpreted, decisions to suspend students and keep them out of class cross the line. The NCAC has compared the schools’ actions to the plot of the 1984 film “Footloose,” in which a town outlaws dancing and rock music.
“It seems a rather disproportionate response by educators to something that, at most, I would characterize as teenage hijinks,” Bertin said.
All technology shifts that give individuals a larger audience — from the printing press on, Bertin said — tend to make authority figures uncomfortable. More student censorship issues have emerged as young people gain more access to outlets for expression, such as the ability to post videos to YouTube, publish their thoughts on personal blogs and spread ideas through social media such as Facebook.
“We do see more of these situations and they will probably continue to increase until clearer legal rules emerge,” Bertin said.
Schools, for example, have suspended students and teachers because of material posted on their social media accounts, even when the activities took place outside of school hours and off school property.
“With more forms of expression, there are more reasons to engage in censorship if the people in charge are uncomfortable with forms of expression that younger generations are using,” she said.
Educators have struggled with their role in policing online behavior, particularly when it comes to issues such as cyberbullying and general online safety as students move behavior that once could have been regulated in the hallways to the digital world.
In cases where someone feels threatened or which cross over into criminal conduct, Bertin said, schools should refer cases to local authorities. But short of that, she said, her organization believes that other measures — such as asking a student to write an essay, or to clean a classroom — are better than what she called the “almost nuclear” option of suspension.
And the reaction to the Harlem Shake videos, she said, were out of line by any measure.
“If it upset people for legitimate reasons — and no one claimed they were coerced into participating, that they felt embarrassed or that they were in any way intimidated by the situation — but if it affected the school environment, then there might be a legitimate reason for the school to call the kids together and say, ‘You did this and it caused some of your fellow students to feel deeply uncomfortable,’ ” she said.
The best option, she thinks, would have been for schools to ignore the videos altogether.
“We are very strongly in the camp of telling schools that this is protected speech. Even if it’s unpleasant, we do protect that kind of speech in this country and should, as much for students as adults,” she said.
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