“The job of an actor is to play a role. The job of a cheerleader is to cheer.”
— Eugene Volokh on Doe v. Silsbee Independent School District
• • •
The Doe case, as most of my readers probably know, involves a high school cheerleader in Texas, identified in court papers as “HS,” who was kicked off her squad for refusing to cheer for her alleged rapist. She had accused the player a few months earlier, but he had remained on the school basketball team. It was school tradition for the cheerleading squad to cheer from the sidelines when players attempted foul shots, but HS refused in the case of this player — standing silently with her arms crossed. After a warning, she was removed from the squad. (The player in question pled guilty to an assault charge some time afterward.)
HS sued the school for taking her off the squad, and lost. She appealed, and lost again. Last week her final appeal was rejected.
Eugene Volokh, a constitutional lawyer I respect, thinks the courts got this one right. If this lawsuit had prevailed, he says, “cheerleaders would be free to refuse to cheer for any reason that they think sufficient.” They could refuse to cheer for teams with gay or undocumented immigrant players, or those who “belong to a reprehensible religion, or refuse to properly support our military.”
I think HS was right to refuse to cheer her attacker, and I think the school was deeply wrong in how it handled the case. (For one blogger’s assessment of just how wrong they were, read this.) Whether by dropping her assailant from the team or suspending the practice of sideline cheers or just letting her sit those particular cheers out, the school should have found a way to accommodate HS’s reasonable desire not to cheer the name of a person who had recently sexually assaulted her.
But they didn’t. And given that they didn’t, I think the courts did the only thing they could. I just don’t see a way to craft a rule that would allow HS to refuse to cheer that wouldn’t also protect a cheerleader who shouted “slut” at a single mother on an opposing team, or an actor who changed the lines of a school play to give it a particular religious message, or a football player who wrote “I HATE FAGS” on his jersey, big enough to be seen from the stands.
It’s possible, as some commenters at Volokh’s blog suggest, that HS might have had other legal remedies. It’s been suggested that she might have had — and might still have — grounds for a lawsuit on equal protection claim, or for infliction of emotional distress. I’m not in a position to evaluate those suggestions. But as a matter of First Amendment law, I think the courts got this one right.
By the way, one other element of this case is worth mentioning — that the appeals court ruled HS’s lawsuit “frivolous,” and ordered her family to pay $45,000 in legal fees to the school district. It’s my understanding that the district has the option of waiving the collection of that judgment, and I hope they do so.
Update | The ACS Blog reaches a different First Amendment conclusion than I did, and it does so by addressing a question Volokh took as a given — whether cheerleaders are “agents” of the school, and speaking on the school’s behalf when they perform as cheerleaders. Their position is that so long as a cheerleader’s symbolic protest doesn’t substantially disrupt the school’s functioning, it’s protected speech.
I’m going to have to chew on this one. It’s not obvious to me that students have a blanket First Amendment right to Sharpie messages onto their uniforms while cheering or playing sports, or to shout obnoxious comments at opposing teams while on the field. I’m attracted to the pro-speech side of the argument — as always — but I’m not sure where I come down on this particular issue.
What do y’all think?