Michigan court protects student free speech
A judge ordered school officials to air students' pro-life announcement over the PA system
A federal court in Michigan recently ruled against a local school district’s attempt to censor a conservative student organization. When Ann Arbor’s Skyline High School refused to read the Skyline Republican Club’s announcement about its opposition to a proposed abortion amendment in the midterm election, the Ann Arbor–based Thomas More Law Center filed suit against the school district.
The school’s paper, The Skyline Post, reported that the club first submitted this draft of the announcement on Oct. 21:
“Are you interested in joining our efforts to protect the health of women and children by joining us in our fight to defeat Proposal 3?
“If Proposal 3 is passed it would eliminate health and safety regulations, legalize late-term and partial birth abortion, no longer require physicians to perform abortions, and eliminate informed consent laws.
“If so email us at firstname.lastname@example.org”
Club leaders contend they received an email from a school administrator refusing to air the announcement due to its direct political nature. As a result, Thomas More filed suit on Nov. 1 on behalf of the club president (whose name is withheld because he is a minor), father David Nielsen, and the club itself. The case received an expedited trial, and presiding U.S. District Judge Paul D. Borman ordered the school to read an abridged version of the announcement over the PA system. The abridged announcement removed the line “by joining us in our fight to defeat Proposal 3.”
Proposal 3 was a ballot initiative that added a right to abortion to the Michigan Constitution. It passed with 56.7 percent of the vote on Election Day.
Borman found that school officials sought “to silence plaintiffs’ appropriate speech by refusing to broadcast it with their morning announcements,” ruling that the school infringed on the First Amendment rights of students by suppressing the announcement because of the political viewpoint expressed.
“The Constitution protects a student’s right to have a different viewpoint from others and share it within the walls of a public school,” said Thomas More attorney Erin Mersino, who represents the plaintiffs. “How else will students learn tolerance toward opinions to which they disagree or how to thrive in our pluralistic society?”
Mesino’s words hark back to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines, which confirmed a student’s right to freedom of speech at school. “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism,” wrote Justice Abe Fortas in the court’s majority opinion. “School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students.” Fortas recognized that students are “persons” under the Constitution, entitled to express their views freely both in and out of school.
The school district continues to defend itself. “We will continue to vigorously defend this case in court so that clarity in the district process in future situations is consistent with the Michigan Campaign Finance Act and other laws in ensuring the district maintains a viewpoint-neutral position, without advocacy, on ballot proposals,” it indicated, reported the Skyline Post.
The Thomas More Law Center chronicled past instances of the school district allowing other student organizations to promote and openly discuss highly political topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change, the George Zimmerman–Trayvon Martin trial, Roe v. Wade, and Planned Parenthood. Thomas More President Richard Thompson criticized the school district’s recurring pattern of “stifling the free speech of conservative students and organizations.”
Multiple Detroit news outlets reported that during the Nov. 7 announcement, students who supported Proposal 3 staged a walkout by leaving classrooms and making a lap around the building. Ann Arbor Schools Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift released a statement on the walk-out, affirming that “AAPS recognizes the rights of students who may choose to exercise their First Amendment rights regarding a walkout or protest event; the AAPS remains viewpoint-neutral on student speech.”
Despite the initial win for the club, the case remains ongoing as the plaintiffs seek a permanent change in Ann Arbor School System policy, nominal damages, and attorneys fees.
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