Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Constitutional Rights in Public Schools

The first ten amendments of the Constitution are referred to as the Bill of Rights. First proposed in 1789, they  ultimately became ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures in 1791. Constitutional rights are a big deal in the United States, as they should be! Sometimes events in our country force us to re-examine these rights and wonder if everyone has the same protection. We wonder, can they be taken away? Under what circumstances? Lately there have been questions about the first amendment and what that means. The first amendment tells us that:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of their grievances.
In many countries around the world, people do not have the right to Freedom of Speech. Citizens are subjected to censorship, told half-truths about what their government is doing, or are not permitted to practice the religion of their choosing. In the United States, we have fought wars defending this right. Our service members have sacrificed their lives standing up for those who are oppressed. The United States stands for those who cannot stand for themselves.

This is undoubtedly a double edged sword. After all, this freedom that we all enjoy as citizens can make us uncomfortable, and we are appalled at the way some choose to express themselves. The examples are countless of citizens exercising their Freedom of Speech in ways that many find repulsive and offensive on multiple levels. Consider the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church at funerals of soldiers who have died protecting these very freedoms. Distasteful, offensive, and appalling? Many agree they are. But yet, these protests continue! Why? Freedom of Speech.

So what about students in a public school? Do they have the same constitutional rights as adults? Can they be censored? While students and minors don't enjoy the same freedoms and privileges as adults, they 'don't shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate'.

This was put to the test in the 1969 Tinker v. Board of Education case. This landmark Supreme Court ruling became the test for student freedom of expression in public schools. The case originated in Des Moines, Iowa when a group of students, wishing to protest America's involvement in the Vietnam War began wearing black armbands as a form of protest. The school suspended the students for violating school policy. The students sued, arguing for their Freedom of Speech at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the end, the students won. Now, we can argue the presence of a black arm band seems plain enough as to not be offensive, but remember the context of the time period those students lived. This was at the height of our engagement in Vietnam. Nevertheless, that wasn't the point.

The Court ruled that in order for the school to take disciplinary action, they must show the action causes a 'substantial disruption of the school'. The ruling went further to state that schools cannot act or censor speech out of a desire to avoid the discomfort that accompanies an unpopular viewpoint. That last sentence in the Tinker ruling is a key point in the application of this law. Yes, I certainly don't agree with how some students choose to express themselves. That fact is, the administration finds some recent displays inappropriate and not at all representative of the Hudson Community School District, however we walk a fine line when balancing constitutional rights with censorship.

So what is a school to do? Well, for starters we have to follow the law as uncomfortable as it might make us.  Then we have to do our diligence in the education of our youth. That could very well start with a conversation about the Constitution. Indeed we are lucky to live in a country that affords us the Freedom of Speech. It is a wonderful thing--but what if we choose to do so in a way that offends, and is not operating within the norms of a civilized society? Well, it would be wise for them to look around the corner into the future; there just might be unknown consequences for proclaiming such things.

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