ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – The American Civil Liberties Union is weighing in on the case of the Festus High School student suspended for three days after he refused to put away a Donald Trump sign at a school pep assembly.
ACLU Legal Director Tony Rothert says students don’t shed their First Amendment rights by walking into a school building.
“Students have a right to speak, as long as they are not materially disrupting the student atmosphere, the ability to learn,” Rothert said.
Festus Superintendent Dr. Link Luttrell told KMOX the sign was “potentially disruptive,” and the suspension is not because of the sign’s content, but because the student refused to obey an order to put it away.
Rothert says it does not appear the sign was disrupting any learning, because it was held up in the midst of a non-academic student assembly.
“Generally, holding up a sign in a pep assembly, it’s going to be hard to show that that materially disrupts the curriculum of the school,” Rothert said.
The ACLU has not received a request from the boy’s family asking them to get involved, but he says the case is similar to a free speech dispute involving students in Kansas City.
“We represented students in Kansas City who stood up during a speech the Governor (Nixon) was giving at their school,” Rothert said. “They had stood up to protest what they perceived as his inaction in Ferguson. This is similar in that it is non-disruptive speaking, and the law is that certainly students who interfere with the school’s job of educating students through speech can be disciplined. However, where a student makes a point of view known in an unobtrusive way, the school cannot ban it just because they’re in school.”
Rothert says the issue in the Festus suspension is whether there was a “real material disruption to the curriculum” of the school.
Heading into the election season, Rothert says school districts need to make room for free speech among students.
“It’s almost always better to allow speech on issues of public concern,” Rothert said. “And the issue of the day for the next two months will be the election.”
Rothert says trying to silence students from talking about something as important as a presidential election is “contrary to our basic American principles, and not a good idea, even if schools can do it.”
Asked if the order to put away the sign violated the student’s Constitutional right to free speech, Luttrell responded: “There’s a time and a place for everything.”
The suspension has drawn scores of comments on Facebook, some defending the district, others accusing the school of quashing free speech.
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