In Defense of My School: Why Limits on Student Speech Matter

1.09.2019


Words matter. Brashly shouted, carefully constructed, or artfully manipulated, words evoke emotions, persuade populations, and excite action. Words change the world, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

Recently, at my public high school, some students from a Christian students' club have involved a law center to assert their desire to distribute Bibles at lunchtime in the cafeteria. Whether or not the students received formal permission to do so remains in question; the lawyers claim that the student group submitted a request; my school's administration maintains that they never received a formal one. The situation has reinvigorated my peers' discussions about the extents of student speech and separation of church and state.

Quickly, however, the situation escalated, attracting the attention of local media outlets, mentions on national news, and a surplus of hateful and prejudiced comments aimed at my school districtenabled by divisive language that obscures facts.

Some news outlets have dubbed my school's action to prevent students from distributing Bibles at lunch a "Bible ban," but such a label misconstrues reality, implying that the administration bars reading religious materials at school. What critics fail to recognize is that, as district officials reaffirmed in a written statement, my high school continues to maintain an open policy allowing students to read, discuss and bring their own religious texts to school. I would even argue learning about, debating, and applying religious texts remains a critical part of education at my high school; just this week, in my literature class, we considered biblical symbolism in the play A Streetcar Named Desire and examined whether the characters could be symbolic of a Christ figure. The "Bible ban" label-- words artfully manipulated-- misrepresents a school policy that strives to include students of all religious backgrounds and misinterprets the issue at hand as one of purposeful oppression rather than informed distribution.

A leading lawyer representing the Christian club further stated that "For some reason they [my school's administrators] believe that in order to avoid an establishment clause violation, they mistakenly believe they need to treat religion like it’s toxic and they need to eliminate it from public school wherever they find it," and that "the Supreme Court has ruled that students do not lose their constitutional rights to free speech when they enter the schoolhouse gates" to Penn Live and ABC 27 News. The lawyer further asserted to Fox 43 that the school's decision to both limit student distribution of Bibles at lunchtime and allow students to hang club posters that contained a Bible verse (a decision later changed after students involved the attorneys) violated "pretty clear case law." These charged words neglect the existing and plentiful case law that challenges student speech and religious speech in schools, case law that protects my school's stance on the issue and remains absent from news reports.

Take Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, for instance, a case in which the Supreme Court ruled that school officials can restrict content published in school newspapers deemed biased or inappropriate for school audiences. Or Tinker v. Des Moines, a case in which the Supreme Court reaffirmed students' right to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands at school, but established the Tinker test to evaluate how disruptive permitted student speech may be. One prong of the Tinker test calls for the assessment of whether or not the speech is school-sponsored and protects the authority of schools to regulate student content. 

Furthermore, public schools should strive to maintain separation of church and state, as secured in the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. By limiting Bible distribution at lunchtime, my school does not "believe they need to treat religion like it's toxic...[and] eliminate it from public school," but instead exercises sound judgement legally permitted by precedent case law. In the case of Bible distribution, my school's policy clearly states that distributed materials must be approved and stamped with the phrase “This event, program, or group is not sponsored or endorsed by the ---- Area School District," a policy protected by the Tinker test and Hazelwood. Reynolds v. United States, a case in which a Mormon man attempted to justify bigamy and declare the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act unconstitutional, reaffirmed the idea that freedom of belief does not equate to freedom of action. In other words, the government can allow the expression of a belief while still condemning an action purported or said to be rooted in religious ideas. A school can promote freedom of religion while setting limits on Bible distribution to maintain separation of church and state.

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe provides another notable precedent. Before each varsity  football game, considered "non-instructional time" but under the supervision of the school district, a student council chaplain delivered a prayer. While the district argued that their policy of permitting but not requiring a student prayer before a football game made the student's prayer "private speech," the Supreme Court held that the prayer violated the establishment clause and separation of church and state. My school's policy does not endorse the distribution of the Bible without school permission, but such an endorsement, even if held during a "non-instructional time" like a lunch period, would appear an endorsement of one religion and violate the establishment clause. 

The lawyer further claims that the policy itself is unconstitutional and ought to be amended because hindering the distribution of materials hinders freedom of religion and expression. I turn to one of the favorite cases of my junior AP Government class to illustrate the necessity of such a policy. In Morse v. Frederick, a student held up a sign with the message "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," referencing marijuana. When asked to put down the banner, the student sued the principal and asserted that his sign was protected by freedom of speech. The Supreme Court recognized that student speech at schools must have limits, though, and agreed that the principal had the right to ask the student to remove the banner. Without limits on what students may distribute during school hours, material of any kind that is classified as religious, no matter how inappropriate or vulgar, can be spread using the same justification as that used to approve the distribution of the Bible: freedom of religion. These materials reflect poorly not only on the students that distribute them but the school and administration as a whole. 

As a student blogger and participant in my own school's walkout to recognize those affected by gun violence in schools, I believe student free speech is essential. I do also recognize, though, that within a school building, as reinforced by several court cases before me, limits exist on this speech to promote a safe and appropriate educational environment. Words, spoken and written, contain enormous power. I urge decision-makers to remember this power as they examine the implications of permitting distribution of the Bible within school. 

7 comments :

  1. Wow, this was so eloquently written, Claire! Thank you for writing about this kind of topic, because I think it is vital and quite relevant to today's environment. I obviously support the separation of church and state as well as the right to free speech, but I agree that the school system has to maintain a level of limitations on what is deemed "acceptable." It can be a tough call based on the situation at hand.

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  2. Hey Claire, long time no see! :) I hope you're doing well with school and college apps, and I just read through your recent blog posts and loved each of them.

    I love this post a lot cause you articulated your thoughts very well. It's very interesting how a Bible distribution became such an issue because in my country (the Philippines), everyone is predominantly Catholic and so religion was imposed in my Catholic high school, including to those who were not Catholic. And we had no choice but to abide hahahaha. But reading your thoughts and the links you shared really gave an interesting insight and I totally see where you're coming from. I do agree with everything you said about maintaining limitations and the right to free speech. I also love that you cited case laws and legal cases to support your argument :) I hope something can be done about this because yes, words do have great power even if we might not be aware of such implications.

    Hope to see you around and more in the book blogging community Claire! <3

    Jillian @ Jillian's Books

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    1. Thank you Jillian! I've missed seeing your blog posts! I appreciate you sharing your perspective from a different country. Here in the US I also see that difference in private schools. I attended a religious private school as a kindergarten student and I remember the class participating in prayer and a religious sermon. All of my other schools since, though, have been public, and I do think that at public schools the separation of church and state ought to be maintained as an outlet or product of government funding (so a public school prayer would appear government-sponsored).

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