Reading, Writing, Rights
What About Constitutional Rights in Public Schools?
By Jessica English
JULY 6, 1998: In the beginning years of a student's academic career, he or she stands every day and recites "The Pledge of Allegiance"--robotically from rote.
But the freedom for which the flag stands is often as abstract to these kids as the symbol itself, because a student's rights are not so unalienable in schools. The issue of student rights is complex--varying in public and private schools--and it has been debated back and forth in the courts for decades.
A leading advocate of student rights is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has taken action against schools for denying students certain freedoms. The ACLU believes that students are not only in school to learn reading, writing and arithmetic, but to learn how to actively participate in society. "Students very often in schools are treated as if they have no rights," says Jennie Lusk, executive director of the Albuquerque ACLU. "That's the worst thing a government can do to its youngest people. It makes them cynical and (makes them) despair. ... People who are younger--that's the only experience they have."
There are obvious restrictions that must be enforced to provide a safe and productive environment in schools--take for instance the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. But our most guarded right, the freedom of expression, also comes under the clenches of school administration. Lusk says the line must be drawn so that even minors have access to the most information. "It doesn't make much sense for the government to take over the role of the responsible parent," she says. "That's where (the ACLU) comes down: Is the government trying to take away rights from minors?"
The ACLU is a nationwide powerhouse for the protection of constitutional rights. In local schools, the ACLU has been actively involved in cases that include teachers being fired for providing information on how to stage a walkout, bilingual education, gender and race equality in schools, search and seizure issues, religion in schools, Internet blocks and, most predominantly, freedom of expression for students and teachers. Lusk says the ACLU fiercely guards a student's constitutional rights to participate politically--like walkouts--as well as to express themselves freely.
Within the past decade, there have been a number of clamp-downs on student rights, with dress codes, searches and police department intervention into walkouts. "There's such a panic about security there, not about freedom," Lusk says. "... (Courts) are willing to make a conscious tradeoff. Schools need to work more on teaching (students) what their rights are, that they have a right to the basic freedom contained in the Bill of Rights." The ACLU visits schools to educate students about their rights and the resources available to them because, although the ACLU is prolific in the media and courts, there are many people who aren't aware of what the organization does (see the sidebar, "Know Your Rights," for more information).
"There's been a pretty miserable record (with court rulings) since Tinker," Lusk said. "But outside the school context, there have been victories with curfews all across the country."
The landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision in 1969, a case of a school board banning students from the wearing of black armbands as a symbolic protest of the Vietnam War, essentially ruled that students do indeed have constitutional rights in schools. In 1988, however, the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision upheld the right of public schools to censor stories in the school-sponsored newspaper, in a case concerning teen pregnancy and divorce. The decision allows stories to be censored so that students "are not exposed to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity," according to the Supreme Court.
"The Hazelwood decision was in dramatic contrast to the decisions of courts across the country handed down over the previous 15 years that had given student journalists extensive First Amendment protections," the Student Press Law Center Web site reads. "As a result, many students and advisers are concerned about the status of their rights."
Especially for student publications, constitutional rights are the subject of years-long debate. Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), says his organization hears from hundreds of media students from high schools and colleges across the nation every month. SPLC's job as a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization is to educate these students about their rights and to suggest ways to conquer censorship. Goodman says the most dramatic change that has occurred is the Hazelwood decision, which has resulted in school administrators becoming even more severe in censoring school-sponsored publications and making the rights of students even more confusing.
Over the past decade, issues of First Amendment rights--especially as they relate to minors--have changed dramatically because of the Internet. Currently, Congress is slated to vote on the Internet School Filtering Act, which would require public schools to use filtering programs to block sites that each individual school deems "inappropriate" to students. The problem with such legislation, Goodman says, is first that these filter programs often block valid information that is critical to a student's research, for instance reproductive health sites and any Web pages that contain an "objectional" word like "breast." Then, there is the problem already encountered with schools who currently implement this policy--that valuable resources are often blocked. SPLC has received several complaints that all, or portions of, certain Web sites have been blocked. Goodman also believes that it should be up to individual states to decide whether to require Internet filtering software. "Some schools don't think it's the best way; Congress is forcing on schools what Congress thinks is right."
Lusk believes the Internet is an important venue for students to access information about their rights and to contact organizations like the ACLU. Goodman agrees, adding that the Web has also become a powerful vehicle for expression.
"More and more students are getting a taste of what true freedom is like via the Internet," Goodman says. "In some ways, the cat's out of the bag. (Now) they know what it's like having a voice."
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