TRI In The News
Mass. School Settles Case Over Censored Conservative Posters
From Student Press Law Center
Original article available here.
MASSACHUSETTS -- A federal free-speech lawsuit between a former Hudson High School student and the district settled almost three years after administrators censored a conservative club's posters, the Rutherford Institute announced today. In the settlement, which was reached on the eve of trial in March, officials agreed to amend school policy to forbid censorship of student expression based on political viewpoints.
Christopher Bowler brought suit against Hudson in early 2005 after administrators forced him to take down posters advertising the first meeting of the Conservative Club, a new student organization he started. Bowler founded the club during the fall of 2004 and chose to affiliate it with the High School Conservative Clubs of America. He used the HSCCA's Web address, www.hscca.org, on the posters.
A staff member later warned the administration that the Web site contained "several links to violent and brutal beheadings," according to court documents. The Web site has four links to videos of jihadist beheadings of Americans and a still shot of one of the videos. The school immediately blocked access to the HSCCA Web site from the school network, and the club was forced to take down the posters in early December 2004. The students were allowed to re-hang the posters in January 2005 but asked to remove them again that month. The administration later allowed the club to hang up the posters with the Web address marked out. The students also were allowed to write "censored" over the address.
"It was the concern of school officials that the exposure of students to those gruesome and graphic images would be harmful to students," said John Davis, the school district's attorney.
The school moved for summary judgment early in the case, arguing that the "graphic content of the videos could impinge on the rights of other students" and that the videos could materially and substantially disrupt the school environment, according to court documents.
Under the standard set in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, school officials cannot censor student speech unless they can reasonably forecast that the speech will cause a substantial disruption to the school or invade the rights of others.
But Bowler and others in the club argued that the beheading videos were a pretext used to censor the club's controversial politics. Bowler said he heard teachers in the hallway talking about the club, saying it would spread intolerance and hatred.
Assistant Principal David Champigny told Bowler that he supported the club but many teachers were uncomfortable and offended by the message the HSCCA was sending. Champigny then said the posters had to be taken down because of the beheadings on the Web site.
U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris ruled in October of 2007 that Hudson officials had not met the Tinker standard because the students did not advertise the beheadings on the club's posters; students who viewed the beheadings would be doing so by their own choice.
"When students are exposed to speech only as a consequence of voluntary choice, the speaker has not invaded the rights of others," Saris wrote in her decision allowing the case to continue.
It is inevitable that people will be exposed to shocking viewpoints that do not match up with their own, said John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, which represented Bowler.
"The whole purpose of First Amendment is to protect offensive speech," Whitehead said. "I don't agree with Bowler's point of view, but, like Voltaire said, we should fight to the death to defend the Bowlers of the world."
Whitehead also noted that the school's actions were ironic considering Hudson High School is one of 11 pilot schools in a First Amendment Schools program. This national program was created by the First Amendment Center as a way to change how schools teach and practice the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, according to the Center's Web site.
The school district maintains that the case was never about political viewpoints but about the school's right to make the students take the URL off the posters.
"The plaintiffs claimed that school officials did not have the right to ask them to take the Web site off of the posters," Davis said. "When they agreed to dismiss the case, we took that as an admission on their part that it was not wrong for the officials to require the students to remove the Web site."
The school has already changed the language of its non-discrimination policies to explicitly forbid censorship based on political views.
"The school has always had several non-discrimination policies and these included gender, race, ethnicity and religion, among other things," Davis said. "The Hudson School Committee has tweaked the policies [in March] to include language regarding political views." Davis added that these revised policies are already in effect in the district.
Bowler said he is happy with the settlement and views it as a victory for freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
"I am glad that the administration has finally recognized that if this school is going to pride itself on a democratic environment that emphasizes free speech, that includes all viewpoints," he said.