Brenda Lee Green: The Constitution protects students, too
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Young people in this country are frequently treated as if they're not old enough to have rights. They're often forced to put up with unconstitutional censorship, invasions of privacy, over reaching discipline and many struggle to get a good education in unsafe, underfunded schools.
Katelyn Campbell, a student at Kanawha County's George Washington High School, spoke out against a controversial "abstinence until marriage" assembly, triggering a firestorm of responses from the community. Many voiced their support for Campbell, while others defended Principal George Aulenbacher, who Campbell has accused of threatening her for speaking out.
Jared Marcum, a student at Logan County's Logan Middle School was reportedly sent to the principal's office and later charged by police when he refused to remove a T-shirt that displayed the National Rifle Association's logo and an image of a hunting rifle. While facts concerning both episodes are still in dispute, both cases provide an excellent springboard for discussing student's rights.
Both the West Virginia Constitution and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protect an individual's right to free expression -- these rights extend to adolescents. Decades ago, the Supreme Court of the United States stressed that students "do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate." Schools may only limit speech that substantially and materially disrupts the educational mission of the school or interferes with the rights of others, such as lewd vulgar speech, speech that encourages or promotes illicit drug use or "true threats" of violence.
The message on Jared Marcum's T-shirt, which displayed his support for an organization and political position, was not profane, indecent, lewd, vulgar or offensive to school purposes. Katelyn Campbell bravely exercised her First Amendment rights when she contacted the media to protest an assembly that was medically inaccurate, promoted sex stereotypes and possibly violated state policy on comprehensive sex education.
These reports of retaliation and prosecution of school students are deeply troubling. The First Amendment's guarantees of free speech, assembly, petition, and religious liberty extend to all Americans regardless of age. Schools serve a vital role in helping students understand both the privilege and responsibility that comes with American citizenship. Penalizing students for exercising their First Amendment rights is counterproductive to this principle and has a chilling effect on the educational environment, where ideas should be discussed freely.
The American Civil Liberties Union remains the nation's most recognized defender of free expression and represents hundreds of clients each year whose right to expression has been infringed. As we reflect on these two local incidents, it is important for students, educators and parents to keep a few basic First Amendment principals in mind. Free speech is for everyone. Schools cannot punish students based simply on the beliefs they hold. School officials and educators should foster active discussion of ideas and encourage students to become politically and socially engaged citizens.
The ACLU of West Virginia will continue to fight for students' rights in West Virginia. If you feel like your right to freedom of expression has been violated, we encourage you to submit a complaint through our website or through the mail.
Green is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.