Grossmont School District Rescinds Policy Infringing on Student Free Speech Rights
Reacting to a demand letter from the ACLU, the Grossmont Union High School District quickly ended its censorship of students wearing political buttons, t-shirts, and stickers promoting positions on Proposition 8 and perhaps other ballot initiatives. The district had restricted students from displaying messages except before or after school or during lunch about Proposition 8, the initiative on November’s ballot that would amend the California Constitution to exclude gays and lesbians from marrying.
Under settled law, a policy that categorically prohibits students from displaying or wearing buttons, slogans, stickers, etc. on a political topic during the school day is clearly unconstitutional. In fact, California law specifically mandates that public school students have the right to wear such paraphernalia.
In the landmark student free speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of students to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War. Such political speech is “at the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect,” according to Morse v. Frederick, and cannot be based on the “mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint” or “to avoid the controversy which might result from that expression.”
Political speech that involves a controversial topic such as gay rights is likely to spur debate and perhaps cause conflict, but high school students, as ruled in Gillman v. School Board for Holmes County, should not be closed out of the dialogue, especially since some of the students are of voting age.
Public schools should protect freedom of speech and exchange of ideas.
The district’s attorneys indicated the policy or practice ended the same day they received the ACLU’s demand letter and spoke with the district’s superintendent. Students are now once again allowed to display messages regarding Proposition 8.
The ACLU is always pleased to settle matters without litigation.