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Misconstrued photo leads to Barrington H.S. lawsuit

Six female students at Barrington High School in Illinois are suing the school district, claiming that statements made by the principal and superintendent falsely defamed their character, the Barrington Courier-Review reports.

UPDATE Monday, Nov. 6 — According to the Barrington Courier-Review, plaintiffs voluntarily withdrew the lawsuit described in this story, and no settlement was announced.

Based on court filings, the girls posted a picture for a “white out-themed” party last summer and emblazoned the letters “KKK” on the photo. Another student tweeted the photo, which started a firestorm of commentators begging School District 220 to take action against the girls.

Although no punishment was ever meted out, according to court documents, as reported by the Courier-Review, Superintendent Brian Harris allegedly said the district “does not condone the actions of the students in the photo and the matter is under investigation.” Principal Stephen McWilliams allegedly told a small group of protesters that the photo “burns me to my core.”

“These damaging accusations, originating from careless, peripheral online commentators, were made exponentially more effective by the public endorsements of the Superintendent and Principal,” the complaint says. “Such statements will undoubtedly inhibit the [girls’] future educational and career prospects as well as their future earning potential.”

The letters “KKK” refer to the girls’ initials, and the “white out” theme refers to the color of clothing party guests were expected to wear, according to the lawsuit, which also points out that students of different races, including African-American students, were present at the party.

A representative of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which investigates hate groups, was quoted as saying he would not have interpreted the photo as conveying a racist message.

Editorial

Whether or not any punishment was carried out—accounts differ on this question—statements by school officials that undercut any students are inappropriate. Again, though, the school has not commented to news media as to whether the principal and superintendent made the statements alleged, and any punishment has been denied in the response.

“Plaintiffs have not been suspended or expelled from school attendance, nor is discipline even being contemplated by the School District,” the school district responded. And no students were barred from participation in extracurricular activities, according to the response.

But punishment is beside the point for these six girls, whose character may have been defamed. If that is truly what happened—and there was absolutely no racist intention behind their photo or the party—they have clearly been falsely accused of racism and those accusations were emboldened by the statements of the principal and superintendent. A charge of racist beliefs, while not a crime, would constitute a defamation of their character.

However, the girls are charging that the superintendent referred to their actions in the photo, which he may have misconstrued. That is an “error,” not a defamation of character, which would merit an apology, not a fine. When statements refer to actions, whether they are misconstrued or not, the girls’ character isn’t even the subject matter being addressed.

Furthermore, the statements reportedly made by the principal, while supportive of protesters who claimed the girls were racist, also do not speak to the girls’ character on their face but rather to the principal’s internal feelings.

I hate for questions of syntax and semantics to drag out in a court case when there are kids to educate, but we live in a nation of laws and those laws, ultimately, come down to minutiae. Maybe we can learn something from this, though. What I’ve learned is that things aren’t always what they appear to be and an apology can go a long way, as can public statements about the error in judgment shown.

The girls can also learn something. Which is to consider how what they say and do might be misconstrued. We live in a time when new spotlights are shining on racism and hatred. People who wouldn’t ordinarily worry about the photo are reading into every little thing. They don’t have the long experience of the Southern Poverty Law Center when it comes to differentiating between true hate and a party theme or a person’s initials. A little caution is needed.

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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