Earlier this week, the Supreme Court declined to review the case of a recent Texas high school student who was kicked off her school’s cheerleading squad after she refused to chant the name of a basketball player who had allegedly raped her. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative courts in the country, ruled last November that the victim — who is known only as H.S. — had no right to refuse to applaud her attacker because as a cheerleader in uniform, she was an agent of the school. To add insult to injury, the Fifth Circuit dismissed her case as “frivolous” and sanctioned the girl, forcing her family to pay the school district’s $45,000 legal fees.
According to court documents, H.S. was 16 when she was raped at a house party by one of her school’s star athletes, Rakheem Bolton. Bolton was arrested, but by pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault, he received a reduced sentence of probation and community service. Bolton was allowed to return to school and resume his place on the basketball team. Four months later, H.S. was cheering with her squad at a game when Bolton lined up to take a free throw. The squad wanted to do a cheer that included his name, but H.S. refused, choosing instead to stand silently with her arms folded.
“I didn’t want to have to say his name and I didn’t want to cheer for him,” she later told reporters. “I just didn’t want to encourage anything he was doing.”
Several school officials of the “sports obsessed” small town took issue with H.S.’s silence, and ordered her to cheer for Bolton. When H.S. refused again, she was expelled from the cheerleading squad. Her family decided to sue school officials and the district. Their lawyer argued that H.S.’s right to exercise free expression had been violated and that students shouldn’t be punished for not complying with “insensitive and unreasonable directions.”
Leading legal scholars have pointed out that this case is about more than justice for one purported rape victim — it’s a civil rights issue that goes to the heart of students’ right of free speech under the First Amendment. Though it might seem obvious to most people that H.S. had every right to sit out that cheer, the lower court insisted that as a cheerleader, she was speaking for the school and as such had no right to stay silent when coaches told her to applaud her alleged rapist. The court explained in its decision:
As a cheerleader, HS served as a mouthpiece through which [the school district] could disseminate speech – namely, support for its athletic teams…This act constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, HS was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily.
It’s unclear to many court watchers how H.S.’s silence was disruptive, or how the school’s right to “disseminate speech” through cheerleading outweighed the needs of a sexual assault victim.
The Firth Circuit has repeatedly illustrated its hostility to first amendment rights and victims seeking compensation claims. Texas too has a bad track record when it comes to high-profile rape cases. A recent case involving the gang-rape of an 11-year-old girl by at least 18 men, including several student athletes, caused national outrage after many in the community tried to blame the victim. For years Texas has forced women to pay for their own rape kits. Two months ago, the Texas House approved a bill that would require victims of rape who became pregnant to get an ultrasound and hear a description of the fetus before getting an abortion.
One reporter summed up the miscarriage of justice this way: “The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case is a devastating rejection of students’ rights to speak out against school officials, and a disturbing affirmation of a culture that punishes rape victims instead of perpetrators.”