Blog of Rights

Colorado High School Officials Get an "F" in Civics

By Taylor Pendergrass, Senior Staff Attorney , NYCLU at 1:20pm

Yesterday, the ACLU of Colorado announced a settlement with Jefferson County, Colorado, authorities over a free speech case at Dakota Ridge High School.

When Blake Benson, a junior at Dakota Ridge, learned that Michelle Obama was coming to speak at his high school on November 3, 2008, the day before national presidential election, he and a couple of friends decided to make their political views heard. (After all, it's not every day that a 17-year-old high school student has the opportunity to express his political opinion in view of hundreds and surrounded by television cameras.) Blake, who supported John McCain for president, came to school with a few yard signs, intending to peacefully express his political views to the masses gathered outside the school for Michelle Obama's speech.

When school administrators took away the yard signs, declaring them a distraction, Blake was undeterred and hastily taped a "Nobama" sticker to the front of his T-shirt. Blake went outside to stand on the patio near the school entrance, where one of his friends handed Blake another yard sign (message to would be free-speechers: come prepared). The small group stood peacefully near the school entrance, expressing their views to the crowd and media gathered for the event.

As it turns out, Dakota Ridge High School high school officials were determined to teach Blake a lesson about the First Amendment that day, but it wasn't the right lesson. The Denver Post reports:

According to the ACLU, Dakota Ridge school officials told Benson to leave. When he refused, officials had Benson handcuffed, searched and arrested for interference — a charge that carries up to six months in jail and a $750 fine.

The high school principal, James Jelinek, made no bones about why he had Blake arrested and why, after the arrest, he gave Blake an in-school suspension:

Benson was also given a one-day suspension by principal Jim Jelinek. In his notice of suspension, Jelinek stated the reason was that "Blake was directed to cease politically protesting on school grounds," said the ACLU.

"Politically protesting" on school grounds? That struck us as being a lot less like a disciplinary matter, and a lot more like quintessential student free speech. Blake and his parents contacted the ACLU of Colorado, which then contacted the county and school district attorneys. The case was settled without litigation. The school eventually erased the suspension from Blake's school record, the sheriff's department dropped the criminal charges and disciplined the arresting officer, and yesterday we announced a $4,000 settlement had been reached on Blake's behalf. Truth be told, Blake probably would have preferred to just be able to express his views on the presidential election, but by standing up for students' free speech rights, he was ultimately able to deliver a different kind of message:

What my teachers taught me about our constitutional rights wasn't respected outside the classroom," said Mr. Benson. "If one thing comes from this case, I hope it is that other students will learn more about their free speech rights and not be afraid to use them.

We think educators should encourage civic involvement and political discourse. In this case, Dakota Ridge officials get an "F" in civics. We hope they'll improve their marks the next time around.

 

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