‘Harlem Shake’-Up

By Steve Helmeci
July 5, 2013

PLUM BOROUGH, Pa. – So lets suppose we’re bored tonight and want to watch some YouTube videos. More than likely, one of the “Most Watched” videos will be a Harlem Shake video done by some professional sports team, television show cast, or just a group of random people. We don’t watch YouTube videos often, so we don’t know what a Harlem Shake is, but it looks interesting–let’s click the link. Immediately the video starts playing, and we see a room full of people working diligently or otherwise occupied while one person is repeating the same motion over and over in the center of the room to a techno beat. After about 15 seconds of this, a man’s voice says “DO THE HARLEM SHAKE!”

Then the bass drops, and all hell breaks loose.

Suddenly everyone comes alive, gyrating in his or her own special way to a more prominent techno beat. Let’s just say most of the motions wouldn’t be allowed at a Mt. Lebanon school dance. Despite the provocative nature, we share a laugh and our night continues on as before, leaving us rather unaffected by the video in the long run, and certainly not upset with the people in the video.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the reaction that school administrators at Brownsville High School in Pennsylvania, Nyack and Tappan Zee High Schools in New York, Milford High School in Michigan and countless other high schools throughout the United States had when they saw that students from their schools made Harlem Shake videos.

Students all across the country are being suspended for creating Harlem Shake videos, whether in school or after a school event. Although they are not the only cases of suspensions connected to Harlem Shake videos throughout the U.S. or even the world, the suspensions at three schools mentioned above have garnered national media attention for various reasons. Despite the precedent being set by administrators regarding the Harlem Shake, however, the schools could be violating the students’ constitutional rights by censoring their ability to make the videos.

As each of the three scenarios is an entirely different case study, it would be a disservice to them to lump them all together. Therefore, they will each be individually highlighted below. With the help of Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., the constitutionality of each school’s respective actions was examined. At this point, none of the schools has given any statements on the nature of the suspensions.

Brownsville Area High School, Pennsylvania

“We were given permission to [make the video]. The sub watched us do it about four times.”

Senior Whitney Ptak expected zero blowback after she and 12 other students in her Photography class made a Harlem Shake video during a free period with a substitute teacher.

“One of my friends was talking about it then they were like ‘let’s make one!’ I’m not one to just sit there and say no, so I did it,” Ptak said.

Therefore, it came as a shock to Ptak and her classmates when they were called down to the principal’s office and told they were suspended.

“[The principal] called us down and said ‘Don’t talk — listen. You have two days out.’ then left,” Ptak said. “We were not given any reason for our suspension. None at all.”

Upon hearing Ptak’s description of the events surrounding her suspension, LoMonte couldn’t help but chuckle. “You have to know what it is you’re accused of doing and have a chance to respond before serving the punishment,” he said.

LoMonte feels that, assuming the principal acted as he was described to have acted, the students’ Fifth Amendment rights to due process were clearly violated.

“If the students weren’t given basis for suspension, then they’re violating basic due process,” LoMonte said.

Another issue LoMonte had with the actions of the school was the apparent violation of the Pennsylvania Administrative Code by the Brownsville administrators.

“Under Pennsylvania regulations, you can’t be punished for the content of your speech unless it disrupts the school day,” he said.

The regulation LoMonte is referring to comes from Section 12.9b of the Pennsylvania Administrative Code on the Freedom of Expression. The Code reads: “Students shall have the right to express themselves unless the expression materially and substantially interferes with the educational process, threatens serious harm to the school or community, encourages unlawful activity or interferes with another individual’s rights.”

Based on a cursory overview of the video and the events surrounding it, LoMonte feels that unless the students were punished for jumping up on desks (which not all of the students did), the school would have trouble making a case for the suspensions. Even if the students standing on desks caused the suspension, LoMonte said that the school would “have a hard time making [a case for the punishments] stick.”

“If you’re doing something under teacher approval, it’s hard to make the case for disruption,” LoMonte said.

Ptak and her classmates, meanwhile, still had to serve out their suspensions, and despite pressure from the ACLU and NCA, the school still stands firm in their decision.

“I’m trying to get a scholarship for track, so I’m hoping this doesn’t mess up my future,” Ptak said.

Nyack and Tappan Zee High Schools, New York

After working incredibly hard all season and skating to the best regular season record in team history, a compilation hockey team from Nyack and Tappan Zee High Schools in New York state was forced to forfeit their first round playoff game after the schools suspended 11 team members for their participation in a Harlem Shake video in the locker room after practice.

“My whole team and I were definitely disappointed because we had such a great season,” Senior Corey Aronson said.

According to Aronson, the video was identified by administrators as having “crude and vulgar gestures,” thereby making it punishable by suspension.

The suspensions and the forfeit were definitely lumped together, according to Aronson. “[The schools] said 11 in the video, 11 suspended. So, that’s not enough players on the roster to play by the league rules,” he said.

Like Ptak, Aronson was greatly surprised when the suspensions came down. “We created the video to follow a popular new fad,” he said. “We didn’t think anything would happen besides our school getting a good laugh.”

The suspensions were even more surprising for Aronson and his teammates due to the fact that they posted the video online anonymously, with no team name or player names attached. What makes the suspensions more problematic is that the video was shot in a locker room that is not on school grounds.

Upon hearing that kids were suspended for behavior not occurring on school grounds or physically at a school event, LoMonte was adamant that the school’s actions are not in line with what power schools truly have.

“Engaging in vulgar speech is absolutely, positively not punishable by a school unless it is on school grounds or at a school event,” LoMonte said with clear conviction.

“If that were the case,” he continued, “a student could be suspended for having sex with his girlfriend or cursing at his parents. School authority cannot go that far.”

LoMonte went on to say that the administrators at Nyack and Tappan Zee were “pushing the outermost boundaries of school jurisdiction.”

With regard to both Brownsville and Nyack/Tappan Zee, LoMonte said that the administrators were “treading on thin ice” considering the students’ First Amendment rights as well as their right to due process.

Milford High School, Michigan

Senior Alex Yono and a large group of his friends from Milford have been creating videos for a year under the name “WhiteBoysMakingNoise” before they got the idea to make a Harlem Shake video. They often use a school classroom to shoot their videos, which they make as entertainment for their classmates and the community.

Therefore, as in the two other case studies, Yono was very surprised when, a week after posting the video to YouTube, he and 35 other classmates were called down to the office and given suspensions for their roles in either the Harlem Shake video, another previous video which has since been taken down or both.

“I think the suspension [we] got was very unfair because we had permission and we didn’t harm anyone,” Yono said. “We did all our videos with no intent to hurt anyone and we are sorry if we offended people.”

Yono said that the teacher who granted the group access to the classroom “didn’t care because we had shot videos in there before.”

The issues the school had with the video, according to Yono, were the use of a live animal – a duck — in the video, the lack of shirts on some of the boys and overall conduct during the video.

Kim Root, Director of Communications and Community Relations for Milford, gave another reason to The Oakland Press. “With the increase of social media … these things can lead to copycat videos and kids trying to push the envelope,” Root said.

LoMonte does not see Root’s statement as a valid reason for suspensions. “You definitely cannot suspend people just because you anticipate people copying them in a disruptive way,” he said.

However, LoMonte does feel that Milford has the most valid case against the students of the three cases presented. “If [they shot the video] on school grounds and without teacher supervision, there is at least a question of whether [they’re] violating school rules,” he said.

Milford has a rule against animals on campus other than service animals, and the kids were technically in violation of that rule.

“If [the suspensions] were about the pet, then that’s not the content [of the video]. If it’s not about the content then it’s not a first amendment violation,” LoMonte said.

LoMonte did say that, because the students had permission from a teacher and did the video after school hours in an empty classroom, it is hard to say that they were disruptive and the content of the video is protected by the first amendment. However, if the suspensions were as a result of rule violations such as the animal rule or a dress code and not the content of the video, then the school has a solid case. In essence, it all hinges on what the school suspended the 36 kids for. As the administration has not given any statement regarding the suspensions, it is impossible to say.

While LoMonte is hardly arguing that schools cannot suggest that students take down videos that they deem inappropriate, he feels that granting suspensions is “very harsh,” especially when the videos could possibly be under the protection of the first amendment.

What we can all take from these three Harlem Shake case studies is that it is vitally important that students know their first amendment rights. Schools cannot violate your First Amendment rights unless very stringent criteria are met. Unless you threaten someone, encourage unlawful activity, disrupt the school day or violate school rules, there is very little schools can do.

While I’m hardly suggesting that everyone make Harlem Shake videos, it is important that we are informed. Without the knowledge of due process and our first amendment rights, we could either be unnecessarily pushed around or unknowingly act in ways not protected by the Constitution. Let’s make sure no more students are suspended for funny videos.