Law & Courts

Minn. Students’ Anti-War Effort Fuels Web Rumors

By Catherine Gewertz — March 08, 2005 3 min read
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A misunderstanding about students’ rights to express their opposition to military recruiters at their Minnesota high school sparked a flurry of accusations that spilled onto the Internet, generating a slew of angry phone calls from across the country.

The situation was resolved when the superintendent of the Bloomington, Minn., school district assured students they had the right to set up a table in the main hallway of Kennedy High School, near a table set up by military recruiters who visit periodically.

But for a few days last month, the students’ situation became a minor cause celebre, generating stories by the local news media and postings on Web sites, including that of the filmmaker Michael Moore. Those posts accused the district of silencing the student club, Youth Against War and Racism, under pressure from veterans from a local American Legion post.

That wasn’t exactly accurate. But it didn’t protect Gary Prest, the superintendent of the 11,000-student district south of Minneapolis, from being swamped with phone calls from Boston, Seattle, and points in between.

“One of [the callers] called me a blankety-blank fascist,” he said last week. “One person said he was going to take me down.”

The problem began Feb. 22, when members of Youth Against War and Racism prepared to put up a table, as they had done in December, with anti-war literature and a petition asking the school not to allow military recruiters at Kennedy High, said Brandon Madsen, a senior who helped organize the group.

The group’s faculty adviser told the students they couldn’t set up their table because members of the local chapter of the American Legion, a national veterans’ community-service group, had threatened to withdraw the support they give the school district, such as fund raising. Mr. Madsen said students decided to go ahead anyway.

They distributed fliers the next morning that urged students to call the principal and the superintendent to protest the denial of free-speech rights, Mr. Madsen said. Students in the organization used connections with other political groups to get their “urgent solidarity appeal,” saying the school was being “blackmailed” by the American Legion, posted on several Web sites.

Principal Ronald Simmons came by their table on Feb. 23 and instructed them to dismantle it and began to remove some of their materials, Mr. Madsen said. The principal, who did not return calls seeking comment, offered the students a chance to meet with the superintendent.

Assurance Given

Mr. Prest said he explained to the students that the district permits them to distribute literature expressing their political views, but that the policy hadn’t been sufficiently clear, or consistently applied. He assured them they could set up their table.

Once the students left, however, Mr. Prest spent a lot of time on the phone, trying to correct inaccuracies in the Web postings, including the statement that the American Legion had urged administrators to “shut down” the student club.

Several members of the Bloomington American Legion post were concerned that Kennedy High was distributing anti-war fliers to students, because one flier said it had received school approval. No such approval had been given, Mr. Prest said, but students do not need approval to distribute such fliers.

“The way it came to me is that my secretary said that if these materials are being distributed by the school, they were going to be considering withdrawing their support,” Mr. Prest said, referring to the American Legion post. “But that’s not a factor in any decision I’d make about students’ rights.”

The post’s commander assured Mr. Prest that the veterans’ group did not intend to threaten the district, and the situation was resolved, Mr. Prest said.

Patty Gustner, the post’s general manager, said the situation “got blown out of proportion.”

“We’re all for freedom of speech,” she said. “That’s what most of the guys here fought for.”

Mr. Madsen said the incident shows how students can stand up for their rights and win. Mr. Prest saw a different lesson in it.

“It shows you how fast information travels on the Internet these days,” he said, “and that what people read on the Internet, they believe, without checking it out any further.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Minn. Students’ Anti-War Effort Fuels Web Rumors

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