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“Douchbags” 4 Jesus

Avery Doninger and her mother, Lauren

Avery Doninger is 16 years old, soon to be 17. This fall she’ll be a senior at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington , a lost burg in west-central Connecticut . She’d been elected Class of 2008 secretary in her freshman, sophomore and junior years. She was looking to run for the position again last spring. But when the election was held on May 25, her name was not on the ballot. The principal, Karissa Niehoff, had banned her from running. A month earlier, Avery had been upset over the school’s apparently lousy scheduling of an event called Jamfest. So she called an administrators “douchbags.” She did so on her LiveJournal blog, writing on her home computer. The principal found out, told Avery to tell her mother about it and apologize to the superintendent. Avery did, recognizing that she’d made a mistake. Like so many people who think that what they post on Internet sites nobody reads, but potentially viewable by billions, Avery says “It was written thinking that it would be private and it didn't occur to me that it’s on the Internet, it’s public. […] I mean I’ve really learned my lesson. You can’t present yourself in that way.”

It is a stupidly vile word. No question. Right up there, in my book, with the evocative vileness of “asshole,” but with an added smudge of lazy sexism. But it isn't truly an insult, nor a down-home offensive word. It is juvenile in imagery and juvenile in its uses, a word perfectly suited to LiveJournal-type adolescent users who've yet to know their fucks from their booggers. The word has none of the poetry of “motherfucker,” none of the blunt and sadly underused power of “cunt,” none of the pious exultation of “goddamn,” and so on.

But somehow Avery ennobled it, because principals sometimes like to prove what “douchbags” they can be. So Niehoff unholstered democracy’s oldest fallacy (that leadership positions, even elected ones, are a privilege; they’re not, especially when lawbreaking louts like our current Lord and Savior president got to run for office), fired off her edict (“When kids are in a position of privilege, there are certain standards of behavior we expect them to uphold”), and all but conceded that Avery was being made an example of, which is on its face a misuse of authority and an insult to justice (“We’re just hoping kids appreciate the seriousness of any communication over the Internet”).

Not surprisingly, Avery found the punishment too severe. She’d never been in trouble at school before. She is 16, she is learning her place in the world (and learning it a bit too well now that she so readily agreed to apologize), and she was writing something in her own journal, away from school, whether the thing is public or not. Her comment was no different than if she’d called Niehoff a “douchbag” at the local mall, within earshot of a few passers by. In fact, had she called Niehoff a “douchbag” at the local mall, more people by far would have likely heard the offending word than ever would on Avery’s LiveJournal blog. Those blogs, as has been well documented, average about seven visitors a day, half of those the kid’s friends, the other half mistaken pr random drop-bys. If anything, the fact that Niehoff knew of the positing suggests that some school administrators are getting quite adept at spying on students. As I said: “douchbags.” Or, as Scott Moss wrote, “If you’re a government official, is there any better way to prove you’re a douch[e]bag than by punishing a teenager for calling you a douchbag on a blog?  If I were the student, I’d be tempted to make the first named plaintiff in my case the unincorporated association, “Students Against Douchebag Bureaucrats,” just to make that nomenclature a permanent addition to the web.)”

On Monday, in Superior Court in New Britain, Conn., Avery filed a lawsuit against the principal, asking the superintendent to have her secretary-ship for the Class of 2008 reinstated. She’s charging that her free speech rights were violated when Niehoff bumped her off the ballot. Avery is, of course, absolutely right (I use the word carefully, with Justice Hugo Black approvingly at my back). But the law is increasingly on Niehoff’s side. Just last month the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case that a principal indeed had the right to cross the street, away from her school, and destroy a student’s property—a banner that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” in the name of defending the school district against drug propaganda. In other words, school authority no longer ends at the schoolhouse door. And in this case it extends all the way to Avery’s bedrooms, whether or not she’s in her skivvies. So it goes. Douchbags 4 Jesus, anyone?

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