Pubdate: Mon, 8 Sep 2008
Source: Rockford Register Star (IL)
Copyright: 2008 GateHouse Media, Inc.
Author: Gene Policinski
Note: Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the 
First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 
20001. Web:
Bookmark: (Students - United States)
Bookmark: (Bong Hits 4 Jesus)


School administrators can gain from a recent court decision some 
much-needed guidance on how to react to student voices they dislike.

The good news for students -- and for all Americans -- is that this 
newest legal lesson supports more speech instead of placing more 
limits on student expression.

A landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision -- Tinker v. Des Moines 
Independent Community School District, involving students and Vietnam 
War protest armbands -- put forth the idea that young citizens don't 
automatically surrender their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door.

But since then, courts at various levels have set about defining when 
and how officials legally could shut down student expression. A 
number of those legal limits have been driven by security, education 
or drug-related concerns.

No principal, no superintendent -- and no judge, for that matter -- 
wants to be the person whose inattention, inactivity or decision 
results in another Columbine-style massacre. Judges have recognized 
that teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn amid chaos or 
fear. And the dangers of drug use are painfully obvious.

Still, in various cases in just the past five years, students have 
been silenced because the message was politically incorrect or 
offended administrator sensibilities or community views. After 
voicing or writing sharp political views about the war in Iraq or 
illegal immigrants or gay rights or after penning provocative 
illustrations involving Old Glory, students have been told to sit 
down, shut up and wait their turn as citizens until they leave school 
- -- or face suspension or worse.

Many disputes are settled out of court, more often than not with an 
apology to the student and reinstatement.  But the 8th U.S. Circuit 
Court of Appeals weighed in on Sept. 2 with a common-sense decision 
supporting the rights of students to object to -- of all things -- a 
school policy.

A three-judge panel agreed that school officials in Watson Chapel, 
Ark., violated the constitutional rights of three students in 2006 
who were disciplined for wearing black armbands or wristbands to 
school to protest a new policy enforcing school uniforms, and for 
handing out a flier objecting to the policy.

The administrators agreed in court that the student protest did not 
disrupt classes or order at the school.

The 8th Circuit panel said that despite restrictive decisions since 
it was handed down, including the 2007 Supreme Court decision in the 
so-called "Bong Hits for Jesus" case, "Tinker remains good law." 
Students in both Tinker and the Watson Chapel case were exercising a 
right of protest against a government policy -- something officials 
in every school ought to celebrate by example, not denigrate.

Advocates for student expression have feared that school officials 
and lower courts would expand legal controls into other areas of 
student free expression based on the ruling in that "Bong Hits" case. 
In that case -- officially called Morse v. Frederick -- the high 
court said officials may clamp down on student speech regarded as 
encouraging drug use.

School officials in Arkansas even argued that the subject matter was 
too mundane to get constitutional protection. The decision in the 
Watson Chapel case, however, squarely affirms that nondisruptive 
student speech, be it on issues of international interest or on local 
policies such as school uniforms, is protected by the First Amendment.

In an era in which educators struggle to motivate students to think 
critically, and to instill basic American values of good citizenship, 
arbitrarily denying basic rights to speak out, to write in protest, 
to assemble and to peaceably "seek redress" seems wrongheaded.

Students should learn about First Amendment freedoms in the classroom 
rather than the courtroom.