A battle over words erupted in Wisconsin after school officials censored messages of “Jesus Loves You” and “John 3:16” brought by a student in response to an invitation to share Valentine’s Day cards and treats with classmates.
The student, Dexter Thielhelm of James Madison Elementary School in Sheboygan, and his mother, Melissa Wolf, now are working with the American Center for Law and Justice to educate the educators that second graders also have constitutionally protected rights to free speech.
“Truly, it is astonishing that 43 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the free speech rights of students, including religious speech by students, we still have schools violating those rights,” ACLJ Senior Counsel David French told WND.
According to the ACLJ, Thielhelms’ second grade teacher sent a note home a few days before Valentine’s Day about a “friendship party and chocolate celebration.”
The note expressly invited students to bring “Valentine’s cards and treats to share with classmates.”
The requirement was to have enough to share with each classmate.
According to the ACLJ, which provided WND a picture of Dexter’s Valentine’s treats, school officials objected to a note containing a Bible verse (John 3:16) and the words “Jesus Loves You” inserted into plastic bottles along with candy hearts.
WND attempted to contact the Sheboygan district for comment, but offices were closed on the President’s Day holiday. The school did not return a followup call today.
According to a letter sent to the district by ACLJ attorneys, District Assistant Supt. Mark Holzman addressed the Valentine confiscation with local media in Sheboygan.
Holzman admitted that the district has no written policy governing student speech but that it prohibited Dexter’s gift because of the religious message. He suggested that other students might not be comfortable with the religious content of the Valentines.
But the ACLJ pointed to a Supreme Court ruling that says students cannot be prohibited from exercising their First Amendment rights simply because someone might be offended.
Supt. Joe Sheehan told the Sheboygan Press that Dexter’s Valentines confiscation “wasn’t a free speech issue at all.”
“A student could have that passage, the Bible, whatever they wanted in their own hands. The issue was them distributing them to other people,” Sheehan told the Sheboygan Press.
He went on to say that the school wasn’t given a chance to warn other parents that a religious message would be shared with their students, so there was no chance to get parental authorization for the message.
French says that’s just wrong.
“It’s pretty simple really,” he said. “A student does not shed his constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.
“The general rule is student free speech is protected absent disruption. Dexter’s message was not disruptive, and the school must end its censorship.
“In claiming the district’s decision was necessary to maintain religious neutrality, Sheboygan District Supt. Joe Sheehan has gotten it backwards,” French said.
“Neutrality would have been achieved by allowing Dexter to distribute his religious Valentine’s message on the same terms that other students were permitted to distribute their Valentine’s gifts.”
The ACLJ letter to the school district requests that the district “cease its viewpoint-discriminatory treatment of religious speech.”
According to a non-scientific poll running on the home page for the Sheboygan Press, the community agrees with the ACLJ.
Eighty-five percent of those participating answered “No” to the question, “Do you agree with SASD’s decision to confiscate a second-grader’s Valentine’s Day message?”
“It has been well settled by the Supreme Court that religious speech is protected by the First Amendment and may not be singled out for disparate treatment,” French said.
“To censor Dexter’s speech because of its religious nature is pure and simple viewpoint discrimination.”
“The district’s refusal to permit Dexter to distribute his religious Valentine’s Day messages to his classmates at a time when students were permitted to distribute Valentine’s Day messages of a non-religious nature blatantly violated Dexter’s First Amendment rights as a student,” said the ACLJ letter.
Citing the “Tinker” decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, the ACLJ quoted, “School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are persons under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the state must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the state. In our systems, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the state chooses to communicate.
“They may not be confined to the expressions of those sentiments that are officially approved.”
French told WND, “The district admits that they have no real policy regarding student speech, which in itself is an admission of ‘ad-hoc censorship.'”
The ACLJ has given the district until Friday to respond to the demand that it cease the “viewpoint discrimination.”