The Supreme Court of the United States just told a sexually assaulted high school girl to shut up and go home.
They didn't say it in those words exactly, but that was the effect of the high court's decision not to hear an appeal by a Texas teen who was kicked off her cheerleading squad because she refused to show her school spirit for the boy she said had raped her.
Yup. Her Texas school said that if you're a cheerleader, you leave your free speech rights at the door, and the court system upheld that decision because, in their view, a cheerleader is just a "mouthpiece" for the school's message -- one who is obligated to spread that message, regardless of the circumstances.
According to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals:
In her capacity as cheerleader, H.S. served as a mouthpiece through which [the school] could disseminate speech, namely, support for its athletic teams. Insofar as the First Amendment does not require schools to promote particular student speech, [the school] had no duty to promote H.S.'s message by allowing her to cheer or not cheer, as she saw fit. Moreover, this act constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, H.S. was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily.
So a 16-year-old girl who had been raped by a basketball player was seen by the courts and her school as just a fungible mouthpiece who interfered with the school's important teen spirit work who should be sent packing for not going along to get along, rather than a twice-victimized teenage girl -- once by a basketball player and once by school officials who failed to show the slightest bit of human compassion or understanding for one of their students.
That message sent by both the school and the court system was clear -- boys who attack girls get rewarded by remaining on their sports teams, but if girls stand up for themselves in any way, they're sent packing with no support. To add insult to injury, the cheerleader's family also has to pay the school's legal fees.
Now, as a recovering attorney, I admit it's a fair legal question whether or not the plaintiff actually had a court case against the high school for forcing her to cheer for her alleged rapist or for being kicked off the cheerleading squad when she refused. I'm sure my strict constructionist friends are fuming at the idea that somehow there's a Constitutionally protected right to bear pom-poms. But the issue here isn't about school spirit or cute uniforms. There's a larger theme running through the events of this story -- if you're a school girl who's been raped or sexually assaulted, don't expect any support.
Apparently, that's how things are done in Texas. A recent New York Times story about the alleged gang rape of an elementary school girl in another Texas town suggested that some in the community believed the fifth-grade victim brought the attacks upon herself, expressing sympathy for the alleged perpetrators and their futures, especially the ones who were high school athletes. The physical and emotional injuries the 11-year-old girl will live with the rest of her life were given little thought until weeks, and much criticism, later, when the Times ran a more thoughtfully researched piece.
The way these stories are reported gives the sense that the important issues to be discussed involved the legal system or internal school rules. The important nugget of what's really going on is missing, though -- these stories are about power and control, where authority figures push troubling actions under the carpet and put school athletics and the interests of sports boosters ahead of the physical and mental welfare of our daughters.
A similar theme played out in the coverage of journalist Lara Logan's brutal sexual attack while reporting on the recent uprisings in Egypt. Many people raised the question of whether Logan had brought the rapes on herself by daring to be a woman reporter -- and a very attractive one -- in a Muslim country, implicitly suggesting that women who dare to step outside of certain boundaries should be prepared for whatever negative consequences come their way.
You'd think things would be a little better in 2011 for women and girls who try to put their lives back together after they've been raped. Whether you're a girl who won't cheer for the boy who raped you or a woman who dares to be a journalist covering an important, but dangerous, story, there's scant support from institutions of authority. Of course, as one friend only half-seriously quipped, if that Texas cheerleader had said it was against her religion to cheer for her rapist, she'd be standing victorious on the Supreme Court steps today.
Joanne Bamberger is the founder of the political blog, PunditMom. Her book, Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (Bright Sky Press) will be available in June.
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