The general stifling of academic freedom reared its ugly head again this week, as reports from NJ.com and News12 New Jersey detailed the story of a New Jersey high schooler who was suspended for his participation in a gun-related school assignment. According to the reports, Frank Harvey, a junior at Manville High School in Manville, N.J. was removed from school after creating a video that advocated against gun control.
According to an account Harvey gave News 12, last year Harvey’s teacher for his College and Career Readiness class tasked him with creating an anti-gun-control video. Harvey’s video, supplied to NJ.com, correctly identified one of the chief problems with gun control; that criminals by definition do not obey the law, and therefore firearms restrictions merely encumber the law-abiding. The video also includes a story of an armed citizen defending his family from home invaders and two political cartoons making light of “gun free” zones. According to Harvey, he completed the assignment without incident and received an “A.”
However, according to NJ.com, on Monday, Harvey left a flash drive containing the video in a school computer lab, where it was discovered by an individual who reported the contents to school administrators. The incident prompted an investigation by the Manville Police Department, who, according to Harvey’s mother Mary Vervan, “looked at his presentation and found nothing wrong.”
The school was less understanding. School administrators suspended Harvey and mandated that he undergo a psychological examination before being permitted to return to school.
Complicating matters for Harvey, his College and Career Readiness teacher has claimed that she never gave him the assignment. Refuting this claim, Harvey told NJ.com, “She said my project would be perfectly fine…I presented the video to the class and took a few questions from my classmates. My presentation went over well. The whole idea of the assignment was to expose students to an idea they hadn't considered before.”
Rather than submit to the school’s mandate for a psychological evaluation, Harvey withdrew from Manville High School and now plans to obtain his GED. Vervan is reportedly exploring the family’s options for removing this incident from Harvey’s school records. Suggesting that the potential consequences of this episode go beyond Harvey’s enrollment at Manville High, Vervan told NJ.com, “If the police doesn't [sic] think there was a problem, why is the school taking these extreme actions and harassing us with child services?”
For their part, Manville school administrators contend that Harvey and his mother are lying about the nature of this incident. Superintendent Anne R. Facendo told the media that Harvey and his mother are using student privacy laws “to publicize a blatantly false, one-sided account of what occurred.” Now that Harvey has withdrawn from Manville High School, it is unclear whether any additional information regarding this case will be made public.
Whatever the precise facts surrounding this incident, the ongoing harsh public response against the Manville school administrators shows that the general public has no difficulty believing that public school officials would punish a student for benign gun-related conduct. Following incidents where students have been punished for toy guns, drawing pictures of guns, pictures of guns on their clothing, and even chewing their food into the shape of a gun, the public is likely prepared to believe that the anti-gun prejudice of some school administrators is limitless.
Of course, if the facts of this latest incident are as Harvey and his mother contend, the Manville school administrators’ conduct would be particularly reprehensible. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment protects students from viewpoint-based restrictions on their speech. In the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Court famously noted, “In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”
As noted, there are conflicting sides to this story, and any final conclusions should be reserved until more facts are made available. However, thanks to the actions of some of their more feckless colleagues throughout the country, public school administrators no longer enjoy the benefit of the doubt.