Pubdate: Tue, 9 Sep 2008
Source: Cherokee Scout, The (Murphy, NC)
Copyright: 2008 The Cherokee Scout
Author: Gene Policinski
Note: Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the 
First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. 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 vs. 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 vs. 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 non-disruptive
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 wrong-headed.

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