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School censorship undermines what kids learn in civics

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Charles C. Haynes
June 19, 2010

To find out how the First Amendment is supposed to work in public schools, don’t ask school officials. Ask the kids. Strange as it may seem, many students actually believe what they’re taught in civics class about their constitutional rights.


Consider Raymond Hosier, a seventh-grader in Schenectady, N.Y. He doesn’t buy his school’s argument that his rosary beads are a “gang symbol” that should be banned. For Raymond, they are an expression of faith that he wears in memory of his uncle who died recently (and who taught Raymond to pray the rosary) and in memory of his brother who died wearing that same rosary in 2005.


After being suspended from Oneida Middle School last month for refusing to stop wearing the rosary outside his shirt, Raymond, with his mother, filed suit (with help from the American Center for Law and Justice). He may be only 13 years old, but Raymond already seems to know more about religious liberty and free speech than his school administrators.


Or consider the five high school students in Wisconsin who took to heart those lessons in social studies about good citizenship. Worried about sexual assault in our society, they made T-shirts with the message “Stop Abuse” on one side and a statistic about sexual assault on the other to create awareness of the problem.


But the students soon discovered that Mosinee High School officials hadn’t gotten the First Amendment memo about student rights. The associate principal confiscated the shirts after the students refused to stop wearing them. (Later a superintendent apologized for the seizures as an overreaction.)


In both incidents, school administrators wrongly assumed that the students had little or no freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights in public schools. But as the U.S. Supreme Court famously said in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”


Nothing in the law prevents Oneida Middle School from keeping order by barring students from wearing gang symbols to school, including “beads,” as mentioned in the school’s dress code. But Raymond isn’t a member of a criminal gang and doesn’t wear his rosary to advocate gang membership or violence.


“Beads are beads,” says the superintendent. But under the First Amendment, that isn’t good enough. Without a compelling reason—some clear evidence that Raymond’s rosary would cause a serious disruption or promote gang activity—the school has no business telling him he can’t express his faith by wearing a religious symbol.


Nothing in the law prevents Mosinee High School from banning T-shirt messages that are vulgar or obscene, or messages that would create a substantial school disruption. But “Stop Abuse” T-shirts are none of the above.


The T-shirt-wearing students were simply taking a stand on a serious social problem. Isn’t that what we hope a good civics education will inspire students to do?


One of the Mosinee administrators told the Wausau Daily Herald that the shirts were creating a “disruption” by “upsetting some students” and distracting others during exams.


Another school official was quoted as saying he was all for educating people about this issue, but these students didn’t go through proper channels to get approval to wear the shirts. “Sexual Assault Awareness Month is in April,” he said. “Why didn’t they choose to do this stuff then?”


These administrators need to look more closely at what the law says. In my reading of the Tinker decision, the fact that some students may not want to see “Stop Abuse” T-shirts isn’t even close to what the Supreme Court means by “substantial disruption.” On the contrary, banning the message because it makes some people uncomfortable is a classic “heckler’s veto,” which the courts have ruled unconstitutional.


Moreover, students don’t need permission to wear political or religious messages on their clothing. Nor do they have to wait for the topic-of-the-month to express their views.


Instead of censoring students who have the courage of their convictions, school officials should strive to create a school climate that supports religious liberty and freedom of expression. Educating for good citizenship takes more than a few lessons about the Constitution. It requires practicing what you teach.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at theNewseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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