NCAC issued a statement sharply criticizing school administrators across the country for levying suspensions on students for filming or participating in the popular “Harlem Shake” video meme. So far, hundreds of students have been punished for their involvement in the making of one of thousands of videos in this most recent and pervasive Internet trend.
On March 7, the ACLU of Pennsylvania joined in on the statement and co-signed a letter to the Brownsville Area School District about student suspensions there. NCAC is coordinating efforts to respond to each of the districts who have suspended students, asking that they expunge the suspensions from students’ records.
Read NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin’s Op Ed in The Huffington Post and watch our Free Speech Harlem Shake video.
NCAC Condemns School Officials’ Reaction to Harlem Shake video variations
The suspension and punishment of students for posting a video of themselves doing the Harlem Shake dance is the latest demonstration of school officials’ panicked response to students’ use of social media: A response that completely disregards the free speech issues at stake and is both educationally unsound and counterproductive.
Dozens of students have been suspended from school or expelled from extra-curricular activities for creating variations of the 30-second dance video. Suspension is a last resort ordinarily used to penalize serious infractions or disruptive behavior. The Harlem Shake videos involved neither. The explanation offered by school officials is that the videos are vulgar or indecent, occasionally (and groundlessly) accusing students of “disorderly conduct” or “obscene behavior.”
Suspending students to enforce notions of propriety regarding extra-curricular activities does nothing to advance education, even as it infringes on students’ rights to express themselves and add their creative variation of the dance to those of thousands of others online. The videos are arguably constitutionally protected activity, something that many school officials have failed to acknowledge and that others simply ignore. Indeed, the Brownsville PA school district, where 13 students were suspended, has recently been the subject of multiple claims that district officials violated the constitutional rights of students and faculty.
Dance has frequently been the target of repression justified in the name of good taste: In order to make a video of a performance, Burmese traditional dance troupes have to perform a full-dress rehearsal in front of censorship board officials in order to weed out “vulgar” jokes about government officials and culturally “inappropriate” costumes. In this country, social reform groups led a crusade against jazz in 1921 and against rock-and-roll in the 1950s due to fears that such music and dancing promoted the mixing of the races and incited sexual activity.
Young people grow and thrive when they can explore issues of interest, learn on their own terms, ask questions, and express themselves creatively. Sometimes this entails getting together with a group of their peers and joining a global dance craze. Even if some school officials find the dance distasteful or unseemly, that’s hardly a reason to kick kids out of school.
Such a response reflects officials’ desire to enforce a particular view of “good taste” rather than a desire to meet students’ educational needs. It also reveals a disturbing indifference to the free speech rights of students and constitutional obligations of public officials.
Harlem Shake Letter ACLU Brownsville