Pennsylvania: Minersville school district enacts obscene language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Mar 24 12:58:40 UTC 2007


Minersville school district enacts obscene language policy


MINERSVILLE School district officials refused to comment Thursday on a new
policy that targets obscene language on school grounds throughout the
district. High school Principal Carl G. McBreen and Minersville Area
Superintendent M. Joseph Brady refused to talk about the rule, which
threatens students with out-of-school suspension and law enforcement
involvement that could lead to a fine for disorderly conduct. A letter
sent home with students March 12, signed by McBreen and Assistant
Principal James A. Yacobacci, said, Any student who uses obscene and
profane language or gesture will receive a three-day suspension out of
school and be referred to the local police, where a non-traffic citation
will be filed against the student for violation of Section 5503 (a)(3) of
the Crimes Code Disorderly Conduct.

The courts have well-defined what the term obscene language encompasses,
Minersville police Officer Scott Willinsky said Thursday. The letter sent
home with students said the fine would be approximately $150, but
Willinsky said the base fine, not including court costs, for a disorderly
conduct charge is $25 to $300. Its a sliding fine. The district justice
would set the fine, Willinsky said. Willinsky said utterances of obscenity
typically do not fall into the realm of disorderly conduct. He said the
words must contain a strong sexual connotation or incite violence or some
sort of adverse reaction.

Section 5503 could include written obscenities that incite violence or are
sexually explicit, but law enforcement officials may also classify written
obscenities as harassment, Melewsky said. The schools policy also includes
obscene gestures. Willinsky said sexually suggestive gestures would
qualify as obscene, but extending the middle finger would not. The
Minersville Police Department has jurisdiction of Minersville Elementary
School, while the high school falls into the territory of the Cass
Township Police Department, which could not be reached for comment
Thursday. Calls to the department were automatically routed to the
Schuylkill County Communication Center.

Possible problem

Melissa Bevan Melewsky, a media law attorney with the Pennsylvania
Newspaper Association, said the policy should have been discussed in an
open forum, such as a public meeting, and since it wasn't, it may be a
violation of the Sunshine Law. If they've discussed it already and it hasn't
been public, thats a problem, Melewsky said. Under the law, elected
officials must discuss all business in meetings open to the public except
for matters involving litigation, personnel or real-estate transactions.
Melewsky said the fact that a letter has already been distributed is
evidence of a prior discussion. The letter, dated March 12, states the
policy will go into effect April 2.  The next school board meeting is
scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday.

On Thursday, Brady said the board doesn't plan to vote on the policy but
the members will be informed of its adoption. Melewsky said a vote may not
be needed, since the district can decide to delegate authority to building
principals or the superintendent to implement disciplinary measures, but
good policy dictates public discussion regardless. Melewsky said this
administrative guideline should have been discussed at a school board
meeting prior to a letter being sent, if for no other reason than to keep
parents in the district abreast of decision-making concerning school
policy. Melewsky also said the policy involves a type of language that is
not considered criminal. She said Section 5503 of the crimes code includes
obscene language, but says nothing about profane language.

The policy covers two areas of speech, one of which is not criminal.
Profane language has expressive elements that may be protected under the
First Amendment, Melewsky said. Profane, as defined by Websters Dictionary
for Students, is an adjective meaning showing no respect for God or holy
things. Melewsky said the legal definition of profane is: so grossly
offensive as to amount to a nuisance. She also said the school may be
treading a fine line by saying the student will be referred to the local
police, where a non-traffic citation will be filed. The school can file a
complaint, that doesn't mean charges will be pressed.  The school doesn't
have that authority, Melewsky said.

The district would not grant permission Thursday for The REPUBLICAN &
Herald to speak to students about the issue on school property. At least
one parent, however, thinks the policy is a good idea. Linda Fessler said
she was pleased with the letter her 11th-grade daughter brought home. I
don't think the kids should be able to use foul language, Fessler said.
Fessler also said as a parent she would accept responsibility for any
fines incurred. I'd be very upset with my daughter, but I'm responsible for
her, she said.

Other districts

The North Schuylkill School District doesn't incorporate Section 5503 into
its handbook, high school Principal Sharon J. Snyder said Thursday. Snyder
said administrators use discretion when dealing with disciplinary action
for a student who uses obscene language at school. Snyder said law
enforcement officials are notified if a student uses obscene or
threatening language toward a faculty member. Jeff Angelo, assistant
principal at Pine Grove Area High School, said his district doesn't have a
universal policy, either. I use administrative discretion, Angelo said.
Angelo said he has had to call police regarding students in the past, but
only in situations he feels warrant police attention.

Pottsville Area School District follows a similar procedure, high school
Principal Joseph C. Opalenick said. We don't like to be boxed in with a
decision. We will contact police if we feel its warranted, Opalenick said.
Schuylkill Haven Area high school Principal Chuck Grabusky said his school
hasn't considered the implementation of such policy. We haven't really
thought much about taking it to the next level, Grabusky said. Calls to
the Saint Clair, Blue Mountain, Tri-Valley and Williams Valley school
districts were not returned Thursday.


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