Writing in CNN, John S. Wilson argues against the instinct of some public schools to punish students for sending out ill-thought out racist tweets:
Almost immediately after reports of the tweets, the schools began looking into ways of punishing the students for their actions outside the classroom. The schools absolutely should express their discontent with the offensive tweets. But should they punish the students? Do they even have the ability to do so? Not likely.
One official, Jonathan Pope of the Gloucester School Committee in Massachusetts, admitted as much in an interview with MSBNC.com: "We don't know whether we actually have any legal standing to implement any kinds of penalties for that kind of behavior done outside school on a private communication system."
Pope and other school officials may want to look toward the Supreme Court on this point. The 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines ruling held that students' speech was subject to punishment if it "materially and substantially" affected an institution's educational mission. These few tweets couldn't possibly pass that bar and thus qualify for the schools' disciplinary action.
Wilson makes clear this is not the same as a boycott, it is just straight-up censorship:
Words indeed do matter. But censorship matters even more. When public schools begin to punish children for what they say or don't say - absent doing so on school property or with the school's equipment or express sponsorship - we're no longer on a slippery slope, we've already fallen and may not be able to get up.
This has been played out numerous times in the media over the past few months. Words that have offended many have come from the mouths of Rush Limbaugh and Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen as well as tweets from CNN contributor Roland Martin. Boycotts have ensued, and suspensions and apologies have flowed. The difference is not only that these men are adults, but as public figures they are accountable to their audiences and their employers. In those cases freedom of speech didn't apply because government censorship or punishment was never involved. They were private actors suffering the consequences of the free market - subject to their employers and the whims of their audiences. But this is different. Public schools have boundaries and must stay within them.
Students who don't break laws or their schools' rules are accountable to their parents, not an audience or the state. The public shame of this incident should be enough. Not everything that's offensive is punishable.