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Published in Print: February 6, 1991, as Student Activism Forces Schools To Revisit Free-Speech Policies

Student Activism Forces Schools To Revisit Free-Speech Policies

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The activities have prompted many school administrators to seek legal advice on how to strike a balance between respecting students' and teachers' rights to freedom of expression against the need to protect the educational process from disruption.

Among dozens of incidents nationwide over the past month:

At Bonita High School in La Verne, Calif., a 17-year-old senior seized the public-address microphone on the morning of Jan. 15, the day of the United Nations deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, and said, ''Now is the time to save the world." That was the prearranged code for an antiwar walkout that included 250 students. The girl making the announcement and another girl were briefly threatened with transfer to another school for leading the protest.

About 150 students walked out of their classrooms at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Cleveland on Jan. 17, the day after war broke out. They held an hourlong rally across the street from the school before returning to class.

A Jan. 17 protest at Carlmont High School in Belmont, Calif., resulted in a melee that got so out of hand, according to school officials, that local police were called to restore order.


The incident began when some 75 students opposed to the war walked out of class and sat down on the football field, where they were confronted by about 35 students who strongly supported U.S. policy, said Peter Newton, the principal.

Although some shouting and trading of insults ensued, school officials were at first successful in keeping the two groups apart, he said. But then a lunch period expired and more students descended on the football field. Several students provoked the protesters into fistfights, Mr. Newton said, and the police were then called.

Eight students were suspended and two were to be expelled for hitting teachers or the police, the principal said. Those who originally walked out were given unexcused absences.

"The three young ladies who helped organize the antiwar protest came into my office in tears because all they wanted was a peaceful protest," Mr. Newton said. "This was tough, but it was a learning experience for everyone."

The clearest legal guidance on issues of student political expression in public schools, experts interviewed last week said, comes from the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

In that case, students' wearing of black armbands to protest the Vietnam War was upheld as expression of speech entitled to protection under the First Amendment.

The Justices declared that neither students nor teachers "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

As long as the student expression did not "materially and substantially" interfere with the operation of the school, the Court held, then school authorities could not forbid it.

"I don't think the law is very unclear in this area," said Ivan Gluckman, general counsel and director of legal services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "It got pretty clear during the Vietnam War era."

The law would generally allow students to wear buttons or armbands related to the war, he said, and to otherwise express themselves peacefully.

But, Mr. Gluckman added, any student leading a walkout, as well as other students who miss class time to participate in one, is clearly subject to discipline.

"I don't think the law is in doubt in the matter," he said. "The princi pal has the authority to discipline students who disrupt school."

Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association, agreed that walkouts "are not protected."

"It doesn't matter why they walk out," she said. "School officials are not disciplining them based on what they said, but on the fact they did it at all."

Perry A. Zirkel, an expert on education law at Lehigh University, said that a student demonstration on campus, as long as it did not disrupt the operation of the school, would be a protected form of expression.

"If these kids are out causing a riot, then you can get them off the front lawn of the school," he said. "But if it isn't disruptive, you can't" infringe on their right to stage a protest.

But Mr. Zirkel also said that, in certain circumstances, administrators could analyze student expression in light of the Supreme Court's 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

That case centered on a principal's right to remove from a student news paper material deemed inappropriate. The Court found that public-school authorities may exercise control over speech in school-sponsored expressive activities, including curriculum-related clubs, if the administrators' actions are reasonably related to valid educational purposes.

Thus, for example, an administrator conceivably could alter a student-newspaper article on the war or curb other student expression that could be considered school-sponsored.

Some experts noted that while teachers, like students, have a right to freedom of expression at school, some forms of teacher expression would be legitimate cause for concern.

There is a distinction, they said, between a teacher's silent expression of opinion, such as the wearing of an armband, and indoctrinating a classroom of students with his or her viewpoints.

"My feeling is a teacher does have a right to wear a button in the class room to represent some sentiment about the war," said Michael Simpson, a staff counsel at the National Education Association. "But it would be different if the teacher attempted to proselytize or indoctrinate the students to their viewpoint."

Mr. Zirkel suggested that the subject matter of a class could also have a bearing on how far a teacher can go in expressing an opinion.

"If you are a biology teacher who is supposed to be giving a lab, and you give a 35-minute lecture on why you are for or against the war, then you may have a problem," he said. In a number of recent instances, teachers joined in antiwar protests at schools.

Terry Doran, a journalism and photography teacher at Berkeley Calif. High School, was one of several teachers who joined an estimated one-third of the students at the school who walked out on Jan. 15 to protest U.S. policy in the Gulf.

"It was something we felt we had to do," Mr. Doran said last week. "I was committed to economic sanctions and a negotiated settlement" of the crisis. Mr. Doran and other teachers who skipped several classes were docked pay for the time missed, a punishment the teacher said he accepted. Meanwhile, in Robbinsdale, Minn., near the Twin Cities, a para-professional who sometimes substituted as a special-education teacher was told last month that she would 4o longer be asked to serve at the school because she devoted too much time to talking to students about her opposition to military efforts in the Middle East. "It really was a job-performance issue," Bob Noyed, a spokesman for the Robbinsdale district, said.

"She was in the hallway talking to students about antiwar activities," he said. "The position the district and the school took is that we are not in the business to indoctrinate kids."

The employee, who could not be reached last week, was barred only from serving at Cooper High School in Robbinsdale, not from other schools in the district, Mr. Noyed said.

If teacher and student opinion on the war is consistent with that of the American public at large, then antiwar demonstrations do not reflect the majority opinion in schools.

Recent polls have indicated that President Bush has the backing of some three-fourths or more of Americans for his conduct of the war.

There apparently have been no national surveys of teenage or student opinion of U.S. policy since the war broke out. But last month, before the start of the war, Scholastic Inc. said that 53 percent of students responding to surveys in the company's magazines would approve of a war with Iraq.

And not all high-school demonstrations have been against the U.S. involvement in the Gulf.

Eric Wolking, a sophomore at Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa, organized a show of support for the U.S. troops engaged in Operation Desert Storm for Jan. 26, a Saturday. Close to 2,000 students from 15 high schools in the area attended the march and rally, he said.

"All these rival high schools really got together under a common cause," Mr. Wolking said.

"Vietnam was infamous for what happened back on the home front," he said in explaining his reasons for organizing the rally. "The soldiers were personally blamed. Once the war starts, it's time to show support for our troops. The young men and women over there are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for our nation."

At Berkeley High School in California, the war is "really dividing the school," said Adam Epstein, an editor of The Jacket, the student newspaper. Mr. Epstein wrote an editorial, signed by 46 of the paper's 50 staff members, that criticized the decision to attack Iraq.

"There were alternative steps that we could have taken besides war," he said.

Mr. Epstein said the editors also voted overwhelmingly to leave the front page of the Jan. 18 issue of the paper blank except for these words: "The front page of today's paper has been omitted in protest of the United States' actions in the Persian Gulf." After a decade in which they were tagged as conservative or apathetic, high-school students seem to have become more socially and politically active in recent years, at least as measured by participation in organized demonstrations.

According to a nationwide survey of college freshmen taken last fall by the University of California at Los Angeles, a record proportion of respondents--nearly 40 percent--said they had taken part in a demonstration during their senior year in high school. A year earlier, 36.7 percent said they had demonstrated. During the late 1960's, the figure was only about 15 percent, according to the survey's authors.

Some students interviewed last week said they questioned the effectiveness of walkouts as a protest tactic, since they result in lost class time and potential disciplinary action.

"There have been many attempts at walkouts at my school, but I have been trying to prevent them," said Dave Peterson, the leader of Stu dents for Peace and Justice, a stu dent antiwar group at Oak Park- River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill. "Walkouts don't work un less you have a solid goal."

The high-school junior said he was trying to get more students to participate in larger antiwar demonstrations in Chicago.

But Joshua Lodge, a junior at Concord Academy in Concord, Mass., said that while many private schools in his area have held school- sponsored teach-ins about the war, he favors more dramatic protest.

"Strikes and walkouts get more media coverage," said Mr. Lodge, who led a one-day student strike at Concord. He is also a leader of the Boston High School Network Against the War, a coalition of antiwar groups at 75 high schools throughout the Boston area.

Many of the school walkouts occurred close to the Jan. 15 United Na tions deadline, or right after the Unit ed States-led forces began the air offensive against Iraq on Jan. 16. The number of such demonstrations ap pears to have dwindled since then.

But further coordinated student protest could occur this month. At least two national coalitions of student groups--based primarily at colleges and universities, but also including high-school groups--had set February dates for organized protests.

The National Network of Campuses Against the War met in Chicago last month and set Feb. 1, this past Friday, as a day of protest. The network counts antiwar groups from the Boston high-school network and eight other high schools across the country as members.

"We are not very organized for Feb. 1," Dave Peterson, who is also the high-school representative on the national planning committee for the network, conceded last week. "We are trying to organize our strategy for the long run."

The National Student and Youth Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, another coalition of college and high-school antiwar groups, has set Feb. 21 as a day of protest be cause it is the anniversary of the 1965 slaying of Malcolm X.

Vol. 10, Issue 20, Page 1, 12-13

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