By Emma Campbell
Elm Staff Writer
Wisconsin school district officials will not punish a group of male students who were photographed last spring with their arms raised in a Nazi salute, as reported by CNN.
The picture was posted on Twitter on Nov. 11 on a Baraboo School District parody account and was captioned “We even got the black kid to throw it up.” The photo was removed from social media platforms amid controversy and police investigations.
The district decided not to punish the students with their arms raised after a 10 day review. In a letter to her community, Baraboo School District Administrator Lori M. Mueller said that because of students’ First Amendment rights, the district will be unable to inflict punishment.
The photographer and parent of a student, Pete Gust, issued a statement that he had not explicitly directed students to make any sort of hurtful gesture. He claims that he asked students to wave goodbye to their parents as they prepared to graduate high school.
“There was no Nazi salute,” Gust said.
It may be true that Gust did not direct the students to make such a repulsive gesture, but it is impossible to view the situation as a simple misunderstanding. The raised arms in the photo are rigid and inclined upward, the palms open and downcast. There is no misinterpreting the signal, nor the hatred that it stands for.
The expression on the faces of the students photographed are, to say the least, chilling. The smiles and laughter prompted by a gesture that is historically despicable should be enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine. But if this photograph is so glaringly a picture of hate speech, or rather hateful gestures, why are its perpetrators being protected by the First Amendment?
Despite multiple interviews with the boys in the photograph and extensive digging into the school’s background, authorities were unable to find any evidence that the intent of the students was malicious. It is unclear exactly what the students meant by raising their arms for the photograph, but easy to speculate. It is possible that the students are woefully uneducated and did not fully understand the severity of their salutes. They could have known what the salute meant and made the gestures to be funny, which is immature and insolent. Or, the students could have raised their arms in a genuine demonstration of hatred, which is undeniably horrible.
Still, the Baraboo School District is correct when stating that the students are protected because of freedom of speech. As long as the intent remains murky, the photograph — as it was not taken on school grounds or in honor of any school function — is unpunishable. The Baraboo School District cannot reprehend their students, but surely they can educate them on why this sort of behavior is wrong.