One needn’t read far into the Bill of Rights to understand that Americans are free to speak their minds without government interference. It’s right there in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But as the case at Camas High School reminds us, just because you can do something does not mean that you should. Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequences.
Liza Sejkora resigned Friday as principal at Camas in the wake of backlash over comments she made on her personal Facebook page.
On Jan. 26, following the death of retired basketball star Kobe Bryant and eight others in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, Sejkora posted: “Not gonna lie, seems to me that karma caught up with a rapist today.”
Bryant had been accused of rape in 2003. Charges were dropped after the accuser declined to testify following numerous death threats; at least three people were sentenced to prison for various threats against her. The accuser later reached an out-of-court settlement with Bryant for an undisclosed amount.
The rape accusation against Bryant deserves scrutiny for how society treats sexual assault and for the role that fame and money play in the criminal justice system. But while those issues must continue to be discussed, today we are limited to examining an off-the-cuff comment from a local community leader.
Undoubtedly, Sejkora’s comment was deplorable. Regardless of one’s feelings about Bryant, eight other people also perished in the crash, including his 13-year-old daughter and other teenagers. Suggesting that anybody got what they deserved by being in a helicopter crash is callous. Suggesting that any family should face the loss of a loved one in such a manner is unconscionable.
After deleting the post and after facing public criticism, Sejkora wrote in an email to Camas High School families: “In education, we remind students to think before they post online, especially when feelings are inflamed. We also teach our students about context. My emotions and past experiences got the best of me in that moment.”
Therein rests a lesson for students, administrators and everybody else. Sejkora is not the first person to ignore their better judgment in posting something online; unfortunately, she will not be the last. Commenting when “feelings are inflamed” is a clear path to unintended and unwanted consequences, and those consequences can be even more severe when the comment comes from somebody who is certain to receive public attention.
In this case, according to Camas school officials, that attention included threats. The Columbian reported: “The school has received ‘disturbing’ voicemails about Sejkora’s comments, and vague threats against her have been made on social media.” Such a response is just as deplorable as the comment that led to the kerfuffle. Lobbing an anonymous threat is a cowardly and capricious reaction to an issue that requires reasoned and thoughtful discussion.
Such is the world we live in today, when social media invites and even celebrates inflamed reaction. Used responsibly and cautiously, it can inform, illuminate and entertain; used irresponsibly, it can be harmful and can diminish public discourse.
The lesson for all is to think twice before commenting on social media.
Our inalienable right to free speech, after all, does not mean we are free from the consequences of that speech.