First Amendment: “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 grievances.”
Webster Groves receives federal funding and has a limited open forum policy (schools granting an offering to or opportunity for one or more non-curriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during non-instructional time). Therefore the school should not discriminate against clubs that wish to advertise on school property.
Under the Equal Access Act: “It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical or other content of the speech at such meetings.”
The school policy allows students to meet, but censors the messages of groups, based on fear that this speech would cause disruption in the classroom.
“Access” refers not only to physical meeting spaces on school premises but also to recognition and privileges afforded to other groups at the school, including, for example, the right to announce club meetings on bulletin boards or over the public-address system, according to Straights & Gays for Equality vs. Osseo Area Schools – District No. 279 (2008)
Webster Groves has a policy about what clubs can be school sponsored and what clubs must be a “student initiated groups.” Clubs that have political or religious message are classified as “student initiated groups,” but this begs the question: where do our First Amendment rights end in school?
On Feb. 24, 1969, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 students do not “shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” in the landmark court case of Tinker vs. Des Moines.
The Tinker vs. Des Moines ruling also established that school officials can not censor student speech so long as that speech does not disrupt the educational process.
Also under Tinker vs. Des Moines, schools may not ban or suppress the speech of student groups based on a “desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”
Fear of disruption must be based on facts. “If the reason is a fear that other students will react badly, the school is not permitted to censor speech,” according to Gillman vs. School Board (2008).
Say that the school knew, with utmost certainty and sufficient fact to back the claim, that this article would incite disruption in the learning process, then the school may legally censor the paper by removing the article.
We, as the ECHO, understand where the administration and the school’s lawyer comes from on advising the school on having the two different types of clubs.
It could be that the school is trying to prevent itself from being sued. If the speech of one of these “student initiated groups” offends someone to the point where he/she would like to sue, the school can detach its name from the case, saying that the school does not endorse the club or its messages.
The ECHO also believes, and understands, that court fees are expensive. The learning of our students should not have to suffer due to someone feeling their rights were infringed upon and dragging the community into a legal battle.
However, we also believe the administration is wrong in doing this.
The student handbook says, “These groups are normally not school sponsored because they promote a religious or political view. As a result, these groups are not listed in this handbook or in the yearbook,” but political and religious speech are traditionally understood by the Supreme Court as the most protected form of speech.
We believe the policy should be changed so that all student groups in the school are considered “school sponsored” and benefit from the school’s endorsement.
We believe, according to Gillman vs. School Board (2008), Tinker vs. Des Moines (1969) and the Equal Access Act (1984) that the school should not be allowed to pick and choose what clubs the endorses.
We also believe the legal definition of access allows clubs that are not school sponsored to receive the same benefits that clubs that are school sponsored get. The administration should not be able to decide that clubs that carry these types of messages can’t be included in the yearbook or have to have a disclaimer in the corner of advertisements that the club is “not a school sponsored activity.”
We want the students, staff and administration to foster a safe environment for civil discourse and difference of opinion. The current policy that the school has does not do such by virtue of censoring the speech of students from the top down and deciding which clubs have the support of the school.
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