2010 Winning Essay
"Free Speech Has a Cost"
by Daniel Scott Reuwer
Grassfield High School, Chesapeake VA
Sharon Little wants to join the school’s varsity soccer team. She makes it, but there is a catch; if players have a Facebook page they must “friend” the coach so that she can follow her Facebook comments. In advance, the coach explains her rationale for this requirement to ensure the integrity and reputation of the school are upheld by its representatives, her athletes. Hesitantly she agrees, and the season starts without a problem. But then issues unrelated directly to soccer arise, and Sharon posts inappropriate comments about the issues and a school official. Immediately she is taken off of the team.
The overriding question that arises relates to the right of the soccer coach to remove Sharon from the team over a matter of her speech. While one may argue the coach ignored her First Amendment rights, this was not the case. As a minor, presumably, Sharon freely chose the privilege of participating, as there was no right to be on the team, and she knew the expectations in advance. There was a clearly articulated agreement between the two parties from the outset. The coach allowed the players on the team with the provision that she could see their postings, and the players knew the consequences in advance. As team members, each had accepted the terms. Therefore, the coach had every right to remove Sharon from the team for violating her agreement with the coach. Some may argue that the coach’s provision was ill-advised, as it possibly interfered with Sharon’s rights, or perhaps that parental involvement should have been solicited. In this case, the coach, as a school representative and authority figure, has the responsibility to ensure that the integrity of the school and its program is upheld. It is readily apparent that this was the intent behind the coach’s actions from the beginning consistently through to her final decision.
Sharon used obscenities against a school official, Mr. Tavistock, simply because she disagreed with his decision to place the boy’s team on the better field. He did so as a business decision, yet Sharon jumped immediately to conclusions, posting on Facebook that he was sexist. Even if Sharon did have the right to say whatever she desired about anyone else, she handled the situation in an inappropriate way directly contrary to her prior agreement with school officials. Instead of seeking out the truth and addressing her concerns appropriately with a school official, she made harmful and unfounded accusations. The school would have had every right to remove her from the team simply because she became a distraction. The Constitution provides Americans the right to free speech, but also protects Americans from libel. Mr. Tavistock could potentially even sue Sharon or her parents because of Sharon’s accusations, as her comments slandered his character and therefore directly interfered with his rights.
In many ways this is reflective of the story of Larry Johnson, formerly a star running back for the Kansas City Chiefs. The team had a few good years with him at the helm of their offense. He made Pro Bowls, led the National Football League in rushing yards, and was a dominant force in the league. But the high didn’t last forever. Slowly, things went south. The team fell to the bottom of the league, and Johnson’s performance declined. After one particularly bad season, the coach was replaced by Todd Haley, a move which brought new hope. But Johnson and Haley did not get along, and as the season progressed in the same disappointing fashion, so did their dissention. Frustrated, Johnson demeaned the coach on his Twitter page. The unlimited audience was stunned by the derogatory comments directed towards Haley. Immediately Johnson was suspended from team activities for his detrimental comments.
The Johnson case demonstrates how the situation is to be rightly handled. He had signed a contract with the team and was expected to act in a way that reflected the values of the organization. When he failed to do so, the team had every right not only to not play him, but even to go as far as to suspend and trade him. He didn’t live up to his side of the bargain, and therefore the Chiefs held the cards to determine his fate. It wasn’t that he was less legally protected, but rather that the terms he agreed upon were binding. He still had every constitutional right to say those things, but likewise the team had every legal right to release him.
In the case of Sharon Little, she made a decision for which she faced the consequences. Her actions were wrong regardless of the medium, but because she abused a laptop issued by the school, she presumably violated a user agreement with the school as well as her player’s agreement with the coach. Also, the unlimited audience elevated the severity of the issue and further supported the coach’s decision. Sharon forfeited her privilege to be on the soccer team when she failed to honor the terms of her verbal agreement.
Whether the case has to do with a nationally known superstar or a young girl in high school, albeit presumably a minor, the spirit of the contract remains the same. When two parties agree on terms, each has a responsibility to honor them. When one breaks these terms, there are consequences. In Sharon’s case, the consequence was to be removed from the team. The scenario, as presented and in accordance with issues including respect for authority, school pride, personal and team discipline, and the necessary rules and regulations, clearly provided in advance, fully supports the coach’s decision as proper, appropriate, and legitimate.
Updated: May 17, 2010