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Rude and Protected Too

June 22, 2002

Graduation month is a fine time for educators to convey a few last-minute civics lessons, reminding students, for instance, why the principle that allowed Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech also protects adolescent criticisms of stinky school bathrooms. Too often, however, the end of the school year becomes censoring season.

This spring, Palmdale High students passed out a series of self-described underground newspapers, in which they decried the deplorable state of school restrooms. They also railed against the over-representation of popular students in the school yearbook. For good measure, they threw in profanities and unflattering references to a security guard and the school's principal, Michael Vierra--who promptly suspended the students.

The first suspension apparently had to do with what Vierra saw as the potentially libelous nature of the fliers--a dubious interpretation of the insults, in our view. The second followed the students' refusal to submit another, toned-down flier for approval.

Anyone past the age of 17 understands that running a public school is a herculean task. Parents, teachers and the majority of students have lost patience with the unruly few who disrupt teaching and learning--and with brats who use the 1st Amendment to justify verbal tantrums.

School officials have leeway to reasonably control disruptive speech on campus--courts, for instance, have confirmed teachers' authority to stop students from swearing in class and to censor material that is untrue, harms someone's reputation and is not a joke. Still, a principal has no more right than the president of the United States to set aside the Constitution whenever it somehow offends him or gets in the way.

Under California's own "Leonard law," schools may not punish students for expressions protected off campus under the 1st Amendment. When they do, reversals are as predictable as a commencement speech.

In 1986, Fallbrook High School suspended two students for publishing their own underground paper, then, in an out-of-court settlement, the district paid the students $22,000, erased the suspensions from their records and publicly apologized. In 1997, courts rebuked school authorities in La Puente by allowing a senior to graduate after he passed out a series of fliers comparing his principal to infamous dictators.

The greatest risk of school administrators failing to understand or respect free-speech rights is that the students who depend on them may stumble into the adult world with a warped grasp of democracy.

As evidence, consider that every year some university--this time it's UC Davis--erupts in a brouhaha when one student or group of students takes offense at something tasteless and sophomoric (maybe even vile) that appeared in a campus publication and demand punishment--in the UC Davis case, diversity training--for the offenders.

Perhaps now's a good time for someone to remind the Davis students and the Palmdale principal that the Constitution does not protect against inconvenience or hurt feelings but does very clearly enshrine the right to criticize.

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