As the school bells ring around Richmond County and students make their way to class Monday morning, we hope teachers and administrators remember: Students have free-speech rights, too.
All too often, school officials throughout the nation are quick to crack down on student expression when someone chooses to take offense. This manifests itself in the kind of absurdity we saw this week in the town of Summerville, South Carolina, just north of Charleston.
Summerville High School suspended 16-year-old Alex Stone after he wrote about shooting and killing a neighbor’s pet dinosaur for a class assignment. Stone’s teacher panicked when she read the word “gun” and the phrase “take care of business,” and she called the police. Sounds more ominous when you take it out of context.
Officers found no gun after searching Stone’s backpack and locker. We’re willing to bet they didn’t find a dinosaur carcass, either.
We understand that the horror and tragedy of school shootings has heightened our collective sensitivity. Teachers and administrators have to look out for the warning signs that often precede violent acts. But bristling at the mention of a hypothetical gun used to fell a fictional dinosaur makes us wonder whether common sense is, like Stone’s prehistoric beast, long extinct in too many classrooms.
Students are savvy enough to know the difference between a harmless adolescent fantasy and a veiled threat of violence. School officials ought to be at least as capable of making that distinction.
Much First Amendment case law has dealt with students’ speech rights; some more in favor of the students, others— wrongly — in favor of the schools.
This led David L. Hudson Jr., a scholar with the First Amendment Center, to author his 2011 book “Let the Students Speak: A History on the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools.”
Hudson chronicled cases spanning 150 years of students and parents fighting back against overzealous school officials.
One of the most important decisions was in the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines.
In 1967, three students were suspended from school for wearing black armbands in silent protest to the war raging overseas in Vietnam.
The students won their case in the high court, with Justice Abe Fortas famously writing: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In a press release announcing a nationwide tour commemorating the landmark decision, organizers said Tinker had been cited in more than 6,000 student cases over the past 44 years.
The First Amendment protects both the right to speak and the right not to. No matter how much teachers would like to instill patriotism, students cannot be compelled to salute the American flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
In the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the court ruled in favor of Jehovah’s Witness students in their refusal to take part in the pledge.
In that opinion, Justice Robert Jackson wrote: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
We hope Richmond County Schools and all public school systems seek to educate students in an atmosphere where the free exchange of ideas is valued and students’ right to express themselves as American citizens is respected.