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Another Clueless School Administration

Every once in a while, a religious right legal group gets one right. This is such a case. The Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund) has filed suit on behalf of a student who was told he could not hand out anti-abortion fliers to his fellow students during lunch time.

In late February, the 6th-grade student and her friends at Nova Classical Academy peacefully handed out pro-life fliers at lunchtime to friends and classmates interested in the topic. One of the fliers read, “Save the baby humans. Stop abortion.”

A few days later, they were called into the school director’s office and told that some students find pro-life fliers offensive and that they were no longer allowed to pass them out during or after school hours, even if students requested them. School policy also requires students to obtain “prior approval from an administrator” before engaging in free speech.

In an e-mail to the student’s parents, the school’s executive director claimed that the content of the fliers was inconsistent with the school’s educational mission and that “such political activism is limited to students in the School of Rhetoric [the high school] only.”

“The school has a right to censor students without violating their free speech,” the director wrote. “In short, public schools have every right to prohibit student speech.”

No, they don’t. As long as it is not disruptive to the school’s academic operations, the First Amendment applies to students. And if you think this isn’t the case, ask yourself how you would feel if the viewpoint being expressed was one you agreed with. If you think the school should be allowed to censor this viewpoint but would be angry if the school forbid a student from handing our fliers endorsing separation of church and state, or supporting LGBT equality, then you simply do not understand the concept of free speech.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    And let me guess: The Alliance Defending Freedom is going to rely on the case being decided according to precedents set by cases argued by the ACLU?

  2. says

    Off topic (wildly) but PZ’a bit seems to be down with:
     
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  3. dingojack says

    Richard – I had that here. I emailed Ed about it, then it cleared up.
    Hack attack?
    Dingo

  4. essbie says

    I don’t feel so strongly that the administration is wrong on this. Free speech at schools is not quite as clear cut as free speech in general. There are words that aren’t allowed to be said, there are different types of clothing, even hair styles that aren’t allowed. My kids’ school won’t even allow you to hand out birthday party invitations at school because they don’t want some kids feeling left out. If the standard is applied consistently regardless of whether one agrees with the message, it seems to me that schools have every right to moderate speech on school property. After all, they are charged with maintaining a specific kind of environment which includes order and a sense of hospitality to everyone. If ONLY certain topics are singled out, that’s where you start getting into dangerous territory.

  5. says

    As long as it is not disruptive to the school’s academic operations, the First Amendment applies to students.

    Citation required. If a bunch of kids were handing out pamphlets supporting re-enslavement of blacks, or extermination of Jews, or lowering the age of sexual consent to eight, would the school really have no grounds to put a stop to that?

    Also, do you really think the kids wrote and printed those pamphlets themselves? Of course not — there were adults behind this, manipulating the kids into acting as their surrogates. And part of a school’s educational mission is to keep just any group of adults from interfering with school activities, without at least coordinating with school administration.

    The anti-abortion pamphlets in this instance were probably within the bounds of allowable speech. But there are bounds.

  6. fastlane says

    You sure about that Ed? After ‘Bonghits4jesus’, I would think the school has precedence on their side now. Not that I think it’s the correct ruling, but it seems that if it’s the law, the school might actually be ‘right’, in this case.

    Of course, I would love to see how the school, the ADF and others react if students were to start handing out Planned Parenthood flyers.

  7. says

    In late February, the 6th-grade student and her friends at Nova Classical Academy peacefully handed out pro-life fliers at lunchtime to friends and classmates interested in the topic. One of the fliers read, “Save the baby humans. Stop abortion.”

    Here’s my question: what the hell are a bunch of sixth graders going to do about abortion either way? They’re five or six years away from voting age and have no lobby I’m aware of.

  8. Randomfactor says

    what the hell are a bunch of sixth graders going to do about abortion either way?

    Some of them are going to need them, in a few short years.

  9. says

    Every once in a while, a religious right legal group gets one right.

    More like “Every once in a while, in the midst of the religious right complaining about their freedoms being violated, it actually was.”

    Saying the ADF “got it right” in this instance suggests that they demonstrated some understanding of the First Amendment, which I highly doubt. They just push and push and push for their own side, which once in a blue moon actually was persecuted rather than being the ones doing the persecuting.

  10. says

    Geds said:

    Here’s my question: what the hell are a bunch of sixth graders going to do about abortion either way? They’re five or six years away from voting age and have no lobby I’m aware of.

    Is the only reason to be aware of political topics/current events the fact that you stand a reasonable chance of voting on it?

  11. says

    Another thing: the act of some kids handing out anti-abortion flyers could (intentionally or not, but I’m guessing intentionally given the hate we’ve seen from the anti-choice crowd) have the effect of creating a hostile atmosphere for kids whose parents were pro-choice.

    And this is happening in a GRADE-SCHOOL?! Don’t you think it’s kinda skeevy for grownups to be infiltrating their ideological agendas into kids that young? I remember having political arguments in my grade-school, but there was no outside infiltration, inputs were kept under control, and the classroom didn’t become an ideological battleground. That’s partly because it was GRADE-SCHOOL, and we were busy with things like math, reading, science, arts, history, etc.

  12. says

    Gretchen @11: Is the only reason to be aware of political topics/current events the fact that you stand a reasonable chance of voting on it?

    No. It’s not cool to push your beliefs on other people in general and it’s pretty stupid to do so with people who aren’t going to be of voting age for half a decade and most likely don’t care. I’ve known a few sixth graders in my day and abortion politics ain’t that high on their list of things to worry about.

  13. D. C. Sessions says

    essbie@5:

    The school might have some ground for restricting the distribution of flyers based on the “time, place, and manner” doctine. That is, not during class. Or for that matter, not at school. Or even, “you can leave them for others to pick up but you can’t go buttonholing people.”

    However, “content neutral” isn’t what we have here. The principal’s objection was, explicitly, to the content. Which sets a much higher bar (although the bar does seem to have been seriously bent by Bong Hits.)

  14. says

    The principal’s objection was, explicitly, to the content.

    In fairness to the principal, he may not have even known about the handouts until someone complained about their content.

  15. says

    Didn’t the Bong Hits 4 Jesus decision hinge on the idea that Frederick was promoting illegal activity? Unless the pamphlets are encouragign kids to go bomb clinics, I don’t think it applies.

  16. dingojack says

    Raging Bee posted: “Also, do you really think the kids wrote and printed those pamphlets themselves? Of course not — there were adults behind this, manipulating the kids into acting as their surrogates.”
    Citations required.
    Dingo

  17. says

    “The school has a right to censor students without violating their free speech,” the director wrote. “In short, public schools have every right to prohibit student speech.”

    That’s just flat-out wrong:

    In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school, as well as out of school, are “persons” under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.

    - Tinker v. Des Moines Sch. Dist.

    If the ADF is correct that the pamphlets were handed out peacefully (no disruptions) at lunchtime (not during class time), they are a long way toward establishing a free speech violation. There are some additional circumstances that can constitutionally permit suppression of speech in public schools (Ace of Sevens is correct that the courts allow suppression of speech advocating illegal activity) but on the face of it, this was probably protected speech … and the school director is clueless.

  18. footface says

    Raging Bee writes:

    Don’t you think it’s kinda skeevy for grownups to be infiltrating their ideological agendas into kids that young? I remember having political arguments in my grade-school, but there was no outside infiltration, inputs were kept under control, and the classroom didn’t become an ideological battleground. That’s partly because it was GRADE-SCHOOL, and we were busy with things like math, reading, science, arts, history, etc.

    Read The Good News Club. It’ll skeeve you right out of your skin.

  19. says

    …In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.

    In other words, even in the midst of a paragraph full of strawmanning (“enclaves of totalitarianism?” Really?) and excluded-middle rhetoric (total freedom vs. “absolute authority?”), there’s an admission that there are indeed valid reasons for schools to limit student speech and ergulate their behavior on school grounds.

  20. says

    I’d also like to point out that the only source cited so far for this post is a news release by ADF — who have already been shown to be less than reliable. Also, the news release isn’t all that specific about why, exactly, certain kids objected to the anti-abortion flyers — or, for that matter, what the flyers actually said.

    If the flyers had said “If your mom and dad support abortion, they’re baby-killers,” then the kids who complained would have had a very valid complaint; and that sort of inflammatory rhetoric would have had no more place on school grounds than a KKK brochure.

    We can’t really judge whether these flyers are appropriate because we’re not, so far, getting enough relevant information — at least not from the people filing the lawsuit.

  21. dingojack says

    And if the flier said ‘The flying spaghetti monster doesn’t like abortions’ or ‘Rupert Bear doesn’t like abortions’ or ‘Raging Bee doesn’t like abortions (or does)’? So what?
    That’s all very well, as speculation, but can you say for sure that the flier said one thing or another? And even if it did say one thing (or another) can you prove that this view was coerced?
    You are making the claim Raging Bee, what’s the actual evidence that backs this assertion up?
    Dingo

  22. says

    The ADF only “got it right” because they agree with the kid’s message. Had she been handing pro-choice flyers, they would have been on the principal’s side.

    That’s the difference between them and the ACLU. The latter supports free speech even when they don’t agree with the speaker.

  23. says

    In other words, even in the midst of a paragraph full of strawmanning (“enclaves of totalitarianism?” Really?) and excluded-middle rhetoric (total freedom vs. “absolute authority?”), there’s an admission that there are indeed valid reasons for schools to limit student speech and ergulate their behavior on school grounds.

    But that’s true of all free speech. Incitement to riot or falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater are common examples of speech by adults that can be restricted without the US being an enclave of totalitarianism (though there may be other reasons to think it is). Constitutional rights are rarely absolute.

    In case you haven’t read the decision, here are the reasons given:

    In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. Certainly where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,” the prohibition cannot be sustained.

    Furthermore:

    [I]n our system, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression. Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble. Any variation from the majority’s opinion may inspire fear. Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take this risk … and our history says that it is this sort of hazardous freedom — this kind of openness — that is the basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans who grow up and live in this relatively permissive, often disputatious, society.

    We’ve been around this mulberry bush before and I don’t want to do so again. Your opinion is, I think, that the government should protect children from any any and all speech they (or you) may find disturbing. That’s simply not the law and I don’t think it would be good policy. Given how often atheists and secularists are accused of being stident, disruptive, disrespectful. etc., etc. should the government be protecting children who find atheism fearsome by suppression of the speech of other children to express their disbelief in gods or assert that government shouldn’t be in the religion business? That’s giving way more power to the government than I want to.

    I do agree that we don’t know enough about the case to say with certainty that it was protected speech.

  24. slc1 says

    It would seem that folks here, including Brayton, are making judgements here without knowing that the flyers actually said, i.e. based only on the statement that they were anti-abortion. If the flyer were inflammatory (e.g. said that pro choice people are going to hell) then the school was well within its rights to put a stop to the practice.

  25. says

    If the flyer were inflammatory (e.g. said that pro choice people are going to hell) then the school was well within its rights to put a stop to the practice.

    Not necessarily true. After all, as a blanket statement, that would mean that much of religious speech would be banned because most religions have some criteria by which some people go to “hell” or, at least, are disfavored by god(s). Certainly a case could be made that statements that “Mary Jane Doe” is going to hell could be suppressed, But it is much less certain that saying a particular class of people are going to hell could be forbidden. If some kid said “masturbators are going to hell,” could that kid be suspended (a legal penalty) just because many (probably most) of the kids in the school have masturbated at one time or another?

    One thing that I think is being overlooked is that the issue is not what is “best” for the kids; it is what power we want to give to the government to decide what is best for the kids when it involves taking away the rights of other kids to express themselves. If you want your kids in a school that values what’s “best” for the kids over the rights of other kids to speak their minds, feel free to send them to a private school, whose values you trust. I’ll still be unsure that is what’s best for any of the kids but that solves the problem. Private schools can suppress free speech to its (and your) heart’s content. It’s goverments that constitutional rights are designed to protect against..

  26. slc1 says

    Re John Pieret @ #2226

    If the flyer is inflammatory and could be construed as creating a hostile work environment, then the school is withing its rights to prevent the students from distributing it. The students are, of course, perfectly within their rights to stand outside the school on the sidewalk and hand out the flyers, assuming that they aren’t blocking it.

  27. says

    One thing that I think is being overlooked is that the issue is not what is “best” for the kids…

    Says who? Since when was “the issue” in school policy anything BUT what’s best for the kids? What else do schools exist for in the first place? Are you actually saying school principals should be constrained by the ideologies of people who don’t have the kids’ best interests at heart?

    … it is what power we want to give to the government to decide what is best for the kids when it involves taking away the rights of other kids to express themselves.

    If you think the needs and welfare of kids is less important than your stupid-assed delusional anti-gummint agenda, then you don’t belong in this debate at all, and your interpretation of the Constitution is no more valid than Ron Paul’s. Seriously, if we talk about a school official trying to do his job and you hear only “Government taking away our rights,” then you’re coming at this from exactly the wrong direction.

    And besides, what right is any kid really losing from this decision? These aren’t college students choosing where to go between classes, they’re grade-school kids stuck in a controlled environment, and they already don’t have the option of leaving the premises and eating lunch at McDonald’s instead of the cafeteria. Dump those ideological blinders, lose the fucking dogwhistles, and face reality for a change.

  28. says

    If the flyer is inflammatory and could be construed as creating a hostile work environment, then the school is withing its rights to prevent the students from distributing it. The students are, of course, perfectly within their rights to stand outside the school on the sidewalk and hand out the flyers, assuming that they aren’t blocking it.

    I’m sorry, you’re confusing two different areas of the law. “Hostile work environment” has to do with Federal and state laws that prevent employers from practicing discrimination, or fostering discrimination, in workplaces based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age or disability. The students in a school are not employees of the government and the government cannot be liable for their exercise of their free speech rights as long as it is protected speech.

    As to free speech rights ending at the property lines of government facilities, the citations I have already given demonstrate that such a cut and dried distinction does not exist.

    You are entitled to your opinion as to what the law should be, you are not, however, entitled to your opinion of what the facts are.

  29. says

    I’m sorry, you’re confusing two different areas of the law. “Hostile work environment” has to do with Federal and state laws that prevent employers from practicing discrimination, or fostering discrimination, in workplaces based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age or disability. The students in a school are not employees of the government and the government cannot be liable for their exercise of their free speech rights as long as it is protected speech.

    Bullshit. First, government agencies are obligated to prevent a “hostile environment,” not only for agency employees, but for non-employees who are required to be on agency premises — i.e., kids who are required to go to school, persons required to go to court for any reason, and “clients” of any agency who have to go to agency offices to apply for benefits or whatever.

    And second, a school, public or private, is responsible for maintaining a safe learning environment for all of its students, and that in turn means exercising reasonable discretion to keep out materials or activities that might make one or another group of students feel disadvantaged or less than equal.

    As to free speech rights ending at the property lines of government facilities…

    NO ONE here advocated any such position, and you’re lying when you try to insinuate otherwise. IF you want to argue on this thread, argue with what’s actually being said on this thread, not what our avatars in your head are saying.

  30. says

    Says who? Since when was “the issue” in school policy anything BUT what’s best for the kids?

    The same ol’ mulberry bush. I’ll make one more attempt but this will be my last response to you.

    I’m sure you’d be ok then with a government school that decides that it is in the “best” interests of the students to use taxpayer money to bring in Bradlee Dean to tell kids that gays are sinners and going to hell.

    You are espousing the majoritarian position of Antonin Scalia. As a matter of fact, Scalia would also like the Patriot Act, indefinite detention and waterboarding because any opposition to those things is a “stupid-assed delusional anti-gummint agenda.”

    Like the wingnut theists, you like a government school official “trying to do his job” as long as it comports with your own view. If it doesn’t ….

  31. says

    I’m sure you’d be ok then with a government school that decides that it is in the “best” interests of the students to use taxpayer money to bring in Bradlee Dean to tell kids that gays are sinners and going to hell.

    Quote any comment of mine that even comes close to saying that, or admit you’re full of shit.

    You are espousing the majoritarian position of Antonin Scalia.

    Saying schools have responsibilities for kids’ education and welfare is “Antonin Scalia?” Wait, lemme guess…telling kids to behave is “Hitler” too, right? I tried that on my parents, but they didn’t buy it. Must be something to do with them actually knowing what “Hitler” really meant.

    Yeah, “same ol’ mulberry bush:” you were clueless then, and you’re just as clueless now.

  32. says

    OK, I’ll break my promise not to respond once and briefly:

    Quote any comment of mine that even comes close to saying that, or admit you’re full of shit.

    Government schools have invited Dean in the name of what’s “best” for the kids. If it is okay to ignore the Constitution’s “anti-gummint agenda” when it comes to student’s free speech rights, then its okay to ignore the Constitution’s “anti-gummint agenda” when government schools foist religion on the kids. The Constitution does not apply only when it is your ox that is being gored.

  33. slc1 says

    Re John Pieret @ #29

    How about creating a hostile work environment for the teachers at the school who are government employees?

  34. says

    John, I asked you to quote a comment of mine that said what you accused me of saying. You failed to do so, which proves you’re full of shit.

  35. says

    Government schools have invited Dean in the name of what’s “best” for the kids…

    Which is a tltally different incident from the one being duscussed (with insufficient information from an unreliable source) here. Are you trying to say we have to treat wildly different actions as if they’re the same? The last thing anyone needs is to have our basic laws interpreted through such a batshit-simpleminded worldview.

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