THE BLOG

Don't Shake Down Kids Over the 'Harlem Shake'

03/06/2013 04:53 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2013
  • Joan Bertin Executive director, National Coalition Against Censorship

In case you blinked and missed it, videos of groups of people doing a dance called the Harlem Shake have been sweeping the Internet. The first video was posted at the end of January, and by the first week in February it had gone viral. Since then, tens of thousands of versions have been posted and millions of people have watched them on YouTube and beyond. Everyone appears to have jumped on the wagon: firefighters, people in offices, Division I sports teams, the Dallas Mavericks, the Norwegian army, Pepsi -- even the cast of the Today show. Not surprisingly, high school and college students have joined in on the fun.

To their surprise and dismay, in some cases. While most people consider this craze amusing and harmless, many school officials do not. As a result, students are being punished for participating in what is a worldwide phenomenon. Dozens, if not hundreds, have been suspended from school or expelled from extra-curricular activities for planning, creating or participating in a short dance video. Most recently, 13 high school students in Brownsville, Pa., were kicked out of school for two days over a 30-second video of what one student described as "normal teenage dancing." Twenty students got snagged in Michigan, 10 in Florida, and that's only the widely reported cases. One New York student was suspended for talking about making a video that was never even filmed.

It's difficult to understand why school administrators are coming down so hard on these kids for this kind of high-spirited and non-disruptive expressive behavior. Even the parents of some suspended students have expressed confusion and consternation, saying that school officials are over-reacting. For their part, many school or district leaders have provided almost no explanation for these suspensions; others have accused students of "disorderly conduct" or "obscene behavior." The answer in Brownsville, at least, may be easy. This is a district that has recently been the subject of multiple claims for violating the constitutional rights of students and faculty.

The dances in these Harlem Shake videos may be considered raunchy by some, but they are hardly "obscene." They are harmless, filmed in good fun and either participate in or comment on a global, if passing, Internet trend. Some videos seem to be as much cultural commentary as dance. Administrators seeking to punish students for making Harlem Shake videos appear clueless about the attitudes and behavior of students in their own school and nationwide. Worse, they seem more interested in enforcing their idea of propriety than in promoting students' education.

Aren't educators supposed to do what they can to keep kids in school, not kick them out? Suspension is serious discipline that is ordinarily used only for serious infractions like cheating, or when a student's behavior is disruptive. Some of the suspended students are high academic achievers, school leaders, or star athletes, respected by their peers and teachers; the suspensions will leave a mark on their permanent records, potentially affecting college and job applications. To what end?

What's more, these punitive actions infringe on students' free speech rights to express themselves and add their voice -- or dance in this case -- to those of thousands of others online. The message to students: sit still and keep quiet.