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A Court Victory for Student Free Speech

Earlier this month, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed the right of public school students to criticize school policies. The First Amendment Center:

A three-judge panel agreed that school officials in Watson Chapel, Ark., violated the constitutional rights of three students in 2006 who were disciplined for wearing black armbands or wristbands to school to protest a new policy enforcing school uniforms, and for handing out a flier objecting to the policy.

The administrators agreed in court that the student protest did not disrupt classes or order at the school.

The 8th Circuit panel said that despite restrictive decisions since it was handed down, including the 2007 Supreme Court decision in the so-called "Bong Hits for Jesus" case, "Tinker remains good law." Students in both Tinker and the Watson Chapel case were exercising a right of protest against a government policy — something officials in every school ought to celebrate by example, not denigrate.

Check out the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court ruling if you're new to it. Unfortunately the legal climate for high school free speech has gotten worse since then: particularly with Hazelwood v. Keuhlmeier, which allowed high schools to censor school-funded student newspapers in certain situations; and Morse v. Frederick, the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, which struck down many free speech rights during "school-supervised events" (in this case being the Olympic Torch Relay that the school had allowed students to attend), particularly when the subject matter is related to illegal drugs.

It's incredibly important for public school organizers to know their rights - and plan accordingly. In high school I had a well-worn and earmarked copy of ACLU's student rights handbook in my back pocket whenever my fellow ne'er-do-wells and I had to meet the Principal. Knowing what we could and couldn't do allowed us to maneuver around potential problems and still get our actions and messages out.

Bong Hits 4 Jesus!