Tweet about sportsmanship gets girl suspended

April Gehl, who plays on the girls’ basketball team at Hilbert High School in Wisconsin, didn’t like advice from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association regarding how to show respect for opposing teams and their players, but when she tweeted about it and included profanity, she drew disciplinary action from her school.

UPDATE Jan. 28: Ms Gehl’s tweet has been removed from her Twitter account, probably an advisable action. However, before she was able to do that, we captured a screen shot, available here, with the profanity redacted.

That’s a little small above, so I will simply say the email from the WIAA, which governs high school athletics in Wisconsin, says this:

A message from the WIAA: Not wanting to restrict creativity or enjoyment [sic], an enthusiastic and boisterous display of support for a school’s team is welcomed and encouraged at interscholastic events when directed in a positive manner. However, any action directed at opposing teams or their spectators with the intent to taunt, disrespect, distract or entice an unsporting behavior in a [sic] response is not acceptable sportsmanship. Student groups, school administrators and event managers should take immediate steps to correct this unsporting behavior.

Some specific examples of unsporting behavior by student groups including [sic] chants directed at opposing participants and/or fans. Among the chants that have been heard at recent high school sporting events are: “You can’t do that,” “Fundamentals,” “Airball,” “There’s a net there,” “Sieve,” “We can’t hear you,” the “scoreboard” cheer, and “Season’s over” during tournament series.

First, WIAA, before sending out official communications, needs to hire someone who can write standard English. Second, if schools follow the advice of the organization that governs sports at the public schools in Wisconsin, taking “immediate steps” to shut down expressions like “Airball” at a basketball game, the schools may be punishing students for exercising their First Amendment rights. The expression “Airball,” clearly not vulgar, profane, or indecent on its face and not likely to cause harm or interfere in any material way with the educational mission of schools run by the government, is protected speech.

Many of the expressions aren’t sportsmanlike, and we want to encourage good sportsmanship among impressionable young people. We would prefer to encourage cheers that don’t “rub our opponents’ face” in their defeat. But public schools just can’t legally do that by suppressing speech that fails to meet standards established by the Supreme Court.

We want to encourage loyalty and pride, I know, but sometimes showing support for one’s own team is accomplished by poking fun at opposing teams in what is, at the end of the day, nothing more than a game. No one hears these expressions as an attack on a person or a team, and even adults boo the opposing team when they come onto the court. To expect more of kids than we do of adults is illogical on the part of the WIAA or the schools of Wisconsin.

I would also point out that many of the expressions the WIAA wants schools to ban aren’t even opinions but statements of fact. When it comes to suppressing speech by a government body, content is king. For example, the statement “There’s a net there” is factual on its face. There is a net there. The truth is even a valid defense against libel claims, so when it comes to cheers at a volleyball game, the expressions on the list clearly pass the test.

Of course, we would like young people to cheer for both teams at a game—or at least some at the WIAA seem to want that outcome—but this viewpoint is disconnected from reality and can’t possibly be supported by prevailing US law. Besides, the alternative is absurd:

Ms Gehl’s punishment for her social media activity regarding her feelings about the WIAA’s new sportsmanship guidelines should be cleared off her record, even though she told the Post-Crescent that she has no intention of appealing the suspension.

Furthermore, WIAA should refrain from encouraging schools to violate students’ rights under the First Amendment when they advise schools to take “immediate” action to suppress student speech. The guidelines quoted above should be immediately and irrevocably retracted—and not just because they violate the rules of standard written English.

Note that the disciplinary action was carried out by the school, Hilbert High School, not the WIAA, which has no actual authority in this matter, and the punishment certainly causes no great loss to Ms Gehl, who was simply standing up for her personal beliefs. We believe, however, that her suspension would not have happened without published guidelines from the WIAA, which here suborns a violation of students’ free speech rights.

To be clear, Ms Gehl was punished for her tweet—for speaking out, not for any action at a game. Her tweet included profanity, but her punishment was in the athletic sphere, not in the disciplinary sphere. That is, she was not allowed to play in a few games this season at her school. I wonder if other athletes at Hilbert have ever sent a tweet that includes a swear word and, if so, what their punishment might have been. And we wonder, what other student misbehavior draws a five-game suspension? Is it really fair?

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Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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