Tonawanda News

Columns

March 12, 2007

DICK: Student speech needs protection

It was in 1966 when a meek-looking girl, Mary Beth Tinker, 13, wore a black armband to her Des Moines, Iowa, school to protest the Vietnam war. She was promptly disciplined by school officials. When the Tinkers sued the Des Moines Independent Community School District, the case ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court where this famous ruling was handed down in 1969: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Tinker v. Des Moines became the standard for students’ right to express themselves at school. Alas, that was then — a more liberal time — and this is now — where the straight-laced, buttoned-down and fearful regulate speech at a frightening rate.

During the years since Tinker, the Supreme Court has slowly chipped away at this fundamental right. The last time the court visited student First Amendment rights was in 1988, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which said high school students didn’t have the right to publish stories on divorce and pregnancy in the school newspaper over the principal’s objection. With that judgment, every tin-horn principal in the land turned into a dictator to keep their rebellious and inquisitive students in line.

The Supreme Court is about to hear another case, Morse v. Frederick. Joseph Frederick erected a banner when the Olympic torch passed through Juneau, Alaska, in 2002. Frederick’s banner read: “Bong hits 4 Jesus,” something nonsensical, he said, to catch the eye of TV crews. (At least give him credit for knowing what TV likes.)

His principal, Deborah Morse, suspended him for 10 days, saying the banner violated the school’s anti-drug policy. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on March 19. And guess who the attorney for Morse is? None other than Ken Starr, the man who built a career being President Clinton’s voyeur.

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