High school students from across the nation, claiming they feel like second-class citizens after being denied First Amendment rights by school administrators for quietly participating in an annual pro-life demonstration, are fighting back in court.
Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund have filed complaints against a number of school districts on behalf of students who participated in Stand True Ministry’s “3rd Annual Pro-Life Day of Silent Solidarity.”
“Students don’t shed their rights at the schoolhouse door,” said ADF-allied attorney Tom Marcelle of Albany, N.Y., who serves as co-counsel in M.G. v. Bush and Shenendehowa Central School District, the most recent filing. “The Supreme Court, on more than one occasion, has said that the First Amendment applies to students. As long as the speech is respectful and not disruptive of the school, the students are allowed to engage in it,” Marcelle told WND.
Approximately 1,400 middle school and high schools participated in the national pro-life day of silence. Many passed out leaflets between classes, wore pro-life t-shirts and duct tape over their mouths with the word “Life” written on it.
But the peaceful observation left a sour taste in the mouth of some administrators and several students are paying the price for being so “controversial.”
Gowana Middle School, Clifton Park, N.Y.: A 13-year-old eighth grade student at Gowana Middle School took extra precautions to ensure that he would be able to participate in the Oct. 24 event. More than a week prior to the day, his mother courteously phoned Shenendehowa Central School District’s superintendent to notify the administration of her pro-life son’s plans to distribute leaflets containing text advocating against abortion, wear a message-bearing t-shirt and duct tape over his mouth as symbolic expression. The boy even went so far as to obtain special permission from each of his instructors so they would not feel that he was disrupting class with his silent expression.
On the morning of Oct. 24, the boy passed out leaflets on the bus, and several more students who were impressed with his efforts decided to join him in peaceful protest.
However, Gowana Middle School’s principal Jill Bush stopped the pamphlet distribution in its tracks when she summoned the students to her office that morning. She insisted they turn their clothing inside out, remove the tape from their mouths and toss it into the garbage along with their fliers. Principal Bush then made a public announcement over the intercom informing students that they would not be permitted to take part in the activities and demanded anyone who had received a flier to immediately forfeit the literature to school officials.
One of the students politely informed Bush of their First Amendment right to peacefully express their views. She agreed to allow them to remain silent without the red “life” tape, but said they would not be allowed to tell anyone why.
“Students shouldn’t be thinking about issues like that at your age,” she reportedly said.
The administration has previously allowed others to engage in peaceful forms of expression, regardless of controversy. In the past, the middle school students have been allowed to distribute literature and wear clothing with questionable statements.
“Historically, [Gowana] students have worn shirts ridiculing the president, ridiculing the war in Iraq and poking fun at religious beliefs,” Marcelle told WND. “She can’t just determine that Roe. v. Wade and the country’s abortion policy are off limits.”
Penn Cambria High School, Cresson, Pa.: A 16-year-old female sophomore also participated in Stand True’s “3rd Annual Pro-Life Day of Silent Solidarity.” Along with a group of her peers and outside of instruction time, she silently distributed fliers containing text advocating against abortion.
Before classes began, the librarian told her to obtain permission to copy fliers from an administrator. Principal Kathy Nagle was not in her office, so she approached Assistant Principal Ernie Fetzer and was granted permission to hand out fliers during non-class time.
But during third period classes, Nagle called the students into her office to forbid them from distributing leaflets or wearing tape over their mouths because she said it was too controversial and “might start a fight.”
Objecting to the anti-abortion content, she rescinded the assistant principal’s approval to pass out leaflets and insisted that fliers must be authorized by her two weeks prior to an event.
Attorneys with the ADF filed a complaint claiming Nagle censored student speech “because of its content and viewpoint, selectively targeting her speech for prohibition … thereby violating the equal protection clause of the Fourteen Amendment.”
Millbrook High School, Winchester, Va.: A senior named Andrew Raker distributed leaflets and wore a t-shirt that said “Some Choices Are Wrong” and “Abortion Is Forever” to school. He also wore a symbolic red armband displaying the word “silenced.” The following day, principal Joseph Swack objected to the content of his speech, forbidding him to pass out fliers because other students might consider them to be religious.
The principal also said Raker would be required to cover or remove offensive clothing if students complained. Raker said he was interested in starting a “pro-life” club, but Swack expressed concerns that students might also begin a “pro-choice” club.
Raker called the Alliance Defense Fund, and attorney Matthew Bowman handled his case.
“Andrew called us and we wrote a letter to the principal explaining to him that he can’t restrict speech on this basis,” Bowman told WND. “The school wrote back to us and denied that the principal said any of this. They said that he could wear his t-shirt and start a club, but he can’t hand out literature. They announced new rules that are nowhere to be found in the student handbook or on the school or school district’s website.”
Northeast Senior High School, Pasadena, Md.: The previous cases are still pending; however, the Alliance Defense Fund managed to help reverse a decision made by school officials to ban Hilary Humphrey from distributing and posting fliers promoting the “3rd Annual Student’ Day of Silent Solidarity” on campus.
Northeast Senior High School policy states that students and student groups are allowed to promote activities after obtaining permission from school officials. Despite the rules protecting student speech, they deemed Humphrey’s anti-abortion leaflets to be “inflammatory” and refused to allow them. She contacted ADF, and attorneys sent a letter to the school officials, informing them of the student’s rights under the Constitution. As a result, the school agreed to allow Humphrey and other pro-life students to promote their event.
ADF attorney Matthew Bowman believes that some of the cases develop because Christians have been historically discriminated against, and others develop because of an intense fear of Christianity.
“There is, in many cases, a belief that Christian pro-life students are second class citizens,” Bowman told WND. “In others, school officials are just ignorant about the law and all they know is this culture of intimidation that makes them react with horror to any Christian or traditional value speech coming out of the mouths of students.”
Brian Kemper is president of Stand True, the organization that began “Pro-Life Day of Silent Solidarity.”
“It’s such a great thing that students are willing to stand up for things they believe in,” Kemper told WND. “Especially when, for the most part, it is such an uncool thing to do. We are seeing an upswing of more students who are pro-life. It is such a positive message – standing up for life is a positive thing.”
More information and photos can be found on Stand True’s Silent Day website.
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Chelsea Schilling is a WND reporter intern.