Following ACLU Action, Northern California High School Students Win First Amendment Victory
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
School Agrees to Allow Student Peace Rally to Be Held in the Fall
SAN FRANCISCO -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California announced today that a student group at Deer Valley High School has won the right to hold a peace rally in the fall. The Antioch Unified School District agreed to allow the rally to continue after the ACLU of Northern California intervened on behalf of the students.
Deer Valley High School's Students for Peace and Justice initially requested permission to hold a peace rally in February and planned to include a folk singer, student speeches, leaflets, banners and information regarding the war in Iraq and other social issues. But the request was rejected by the principal, who expressed concern that the anti-war message was disrespectful of the military and might offend people.
"The California Legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court have recognized that high schools are important forums for free speech and political debate," said Julia Harumi Mass, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. "As students prepare to participate as full citizens in society, schools should encourage independent thought and dialogue about current events, even controversial ones. School administrators certainly cannot silence students because they disagree with the students' message, which is what happened here."
With the assistance of the club's advisor, the students submitted a revised plan for a rally on March 17 and the principal agreed to allow the rally to go forward. However, the principal restricted the students to a rally without the use of the school's sound system, even though student activities using the system are common at the school, and the U.S. military has used the system to air messages on campus. Then, on the day before the planned rally, the principal withdrew permission for the event altogether. The school also placed the two primary organizers of the rally on two-day on-campus suspensions, starting the day of the planned rally.
The ACLU of Northern California sent a demand letter to the school to allow the rally to go forward, and filed tort claims on behalf of Students for Peace and Justice and seven of its individual members. The school district then agreed to make concessions to the students.
Under the agreement, the students will be allowed to hold a peace rally during all three lunch periods on campus in September, be permitted to use the school's sound system for recorded music and speeches, display banners and posters as part of the event, and distribute literature at the rally. The students' speeches will not be subject to any prior review by the school administration.
"We really believe this is a victory for high school students not just at Deer Valley but at other schools," said Patrick Edelbacher, one of the students who was suspended. "If we prohibit forum and debate within our public schools, our democratic ideals will become meaningless. In a time of war and low military recruiting numbers, students are faced with life altering choices and deserve the information needed to make educated decisions. That is why it is so important that all students have the opportunity to hold rallies like this."
Students for Peace and Justice co-founder Amir-Ali Sarkeshik, who was also suspended on the day of the planned rally, agreed.
"The war in Iraq is being waged in our name and all we want is the right to voice our opposition at school," said Sarkeshik. "We felt betrayed by the school's attempt to silence us, luckily the First Amendment can't be silenced!"
The school district also agreed to remove Edelbacher's and Sarkeshik's suspensions from their records and to rescind a district-wide policy that required students to get prior approval for literature they pass out on school campuses.
Profiles of the students are available at http://www.aclunc.org/pressrel/050714-deervalley.html