Free Speech for Conservative Students?

It sounded like a freedom-of-religion case when a Columbus, Texas high school relay-race team was disqualified from the state track championship because Derrick Hayes pointed heavenward after his team won the race. That would seem odd in a red state like Texas. It turned out that officials were so strict, they warned runners to make no hand gestures after the finish line. Hayes had apparently pointed forward, and then upward, and for that, he was out.

It can be tough to be a student in today’s public schools. Never mind restrictions on the schools. It is becoming impossible to express a socially conservative or Christian viewpoint – as a student. Across the land, everyone is ordered to welcome without a discouraging word any expression of the gay or transgender variety. But try to say the G-word or oppose abortion, and watch someone lower the boom.

– In Minnesota, a sixth-grade student was prohibited by her public school from distributing pro-life pamphlets during lunch time. One of the fliers read, “Save the baby humans. Stop abortion.”

A few days later, she was called into the  school director’s office and told that some students find pro-life fliers offensive and that she was no longer allowed to pass them out during or after school hours, even if other students requested them. In an e-mail to the student’s parents, the school’s executive director claimed that the content of the fliers was inconsistent with the school’s educational mission.

“The school has a right to censor students without violating their free speech,” the director wrote. “In short, public schools have every right to prohibit student speech.”

Lawyers at the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit on May 3. “Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas,” said Legal Counsel Matt Sharp. “The First Amendment protects freedom of speech for all students, regardless of their religious or political beliefs.”

– In New Mexico, a group of evangelical high school students aligned with the “Church on the Move” lost a round last month in their fight to give classmates two-inch “fetus dolls” with a pro-life message attached. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school district’s authority to stop the doll distribution. Why?

The 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District established that students have free speech in schools, as long as it doesn’t disrupt school discipline. According to Education Week, teachers complained that students who had received the roughly 300 dolls that were handed out were throwing the dolls across classrooms, using them to plug toilets, and in other ways causing serious disruptions in the school day.

There are no reports of any legal or disciplinary actions taken against the students responsible for vandalism.

– In Michigan, the Students for Life chapter at Eastern Michigan University applied for student fee funding to host a display on campus called the Genocide Awareness Project, a traveling photo-mural exhibit which compares the contemporary genocide of abortion to other forms of genocide. EMU denied the funding request because they deemed the photos of the aborted babies and the event as too controversial and one-sided. But they’ve granted money to left-wing activist groups discussing “welfare rights,” as well as race-issues and abortion rights groups.

Of course, all the old anti-prayer bias remains. In Arkansas, the Riverside School district in Lake City decided not to allow a sixth grade graduation this year. Saying a prayer at this ceremony had never been an issue before. Predictably, the school district decided to cancel the graduation ceremony after just one parent came out and protested the prayer – and the school received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sometimes, there’s still a win. A Texas state judge has just ruled that banners displayed at football games by cheerleaders at Kountze High School quoting Bible verses were "constitutionally permissible." At first, the school district stopped the banners after the Freedom From Religion Foundation protested. But after a public meeting in February, the school board of trustees issued the weakest of resolutions in which it wrote that the district was not required to ban messages on school banners that displayed "fleeting expressions of community sentiment solely because the source or origin of such messages is religious."

That “fleeting expressions” language can spur a smile. Just as federal judges have ruled that it’s acceptable for broadcast television networks to air “fleeting” expressions of profanity while children watch at home, schools in religious communities might allow impressionable youth to be exposed to “fleeting” expressions in favor of God.