Opinion: Cheerleader withholding cheers not disruptive

First Amendment commentator David Hudson says that in the case of the Texas cheerleader kicked off the team for not cheering for her alleged sexual attacker, it is clear that she was not disruptive in not cheering nor was there any legitimate educational goal achieved by removing her from the squad. -db

First Amendment Center
November 11, 2010
By David L. Hudson Jr.

Can a silent cheerleader disrupt school activities? Is there a legitimate educational reason to punish a student for refusing to cheer for her alleged attacker?

These questions form the basis for an appeal to the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals filed on behalf of a former Texas cheerleader (known as H.S. in court papers), who was kicked off the Silsbee High School squad after she didn’t cheer for a basketball player who allegedly sexually assaulted her after a football game. The individual played on both the football and basketball teams.

Last September, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit rejected H.S.’s First Amendment, due-process and equal-protection claims in Doe v. Silsbee Independent School Dist. With respect to the First Amendment claims, the panel upheld a lower court’s dismissal in part because, it said, the cheerleader’s silence was disruptive. According to the panel, the lack of cheering “constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, H.S. was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily.”

The panel also reasoned: “Insofar as the First Amendment does not require schools to promote particular student speech, [the school] had no duty to promote H.S.’s message by allowing her to cheer or not cheer, as she saw fit.”

The panel cited two seminal student First Amendment decisions in its decision — Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. (1969) and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988). In Tinker, the Court ruled that public school officials can censor student speech only if they reasonably forecast that the speech will cause substantial disruption of school activities. Under Hazelwood, school officials have more control over school-sponsored speech if their reason for censorship is reasonably related to a legitimate educational concern.

There is no way that a single cheerleader not cheering for a player at the free-throw line is disruptive. The crowd probably focused on the game, not on a single cheerleader. If the cheerleader, say, had walked to the foul line and confronted the player, that would have been disruptive. But being silent for a few moments disrupts nothing.

The full 5th Circuit reasonably could say that the student speech should be evaluated under the more deferential Hazelwood standard, in that cheerleading is a school-sponsored activity. But even the Hazelwood standard requires fundamental reasonableness. What is the legitimate educational reason in forcing a student-cheerleader to cheer for her attacker? (The player later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.)

In the petition for full panel review, Larry Watts, the cheerleader’s attorney, wrote: “She cheered the entire game except for a two brief times when the accused rapist went to the free-throw line. There was no pedagogical purpose ever articulated by defendants as to why a rape victim should in addition to cheering for the team be required to cheer for the accused rapist also.”

It is not only unreasonable to force a cheerleader to cheer for her assailant, it is ridiculous. As Selena Roberts of Sports Illustrated wrote in her Nov. 8 column, “lessons remain to be learned — by the educators.”

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One Comment

  • At the point in time of these events, Mr. Bolton had already been no-billed by the Grand Jury. Ms. Doe did not have the right to use her position as a spokesperson for the school to disseminate her personal viewpoint… This is the real contest at this point, whether the school is forced to take upon themselves liability for someone else’s private speech made while in capacity as a mouthpiece of the school. When she refused to engage in the cheering activities she was told to engage in them, or leave the game. After she chose to leave she was suspended from the squad for not engaging in those cheering activities. I know it’s your knee jerk reaction to want to defame anyone who has ever been accused of rape, but that is not how (nor should it be) how our system of law works.

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