ACLU Defend Texas Student Who Protested Rights Crackdown After Colorado Shooting

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
July 21, 1999 12:00 am

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ALLEN, TX — The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas today filed a federal lawsuit against school officials here on behalf of a high school student who was punished for wearing a black armband to protest restraints on free expression in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting.

The ACLU is representing 17-year-old Jennifer Boccia, who says her First Amendment rights were violated by school officials when she was suspended from school for exercising her right to free speech and when the school officials attempted to interfere with her right to speak with the media.

The controversy arose a week after the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, when a group of approximately 10 Allen High School students decided to wear black armbands to protest new school policies in response to the tragedy. The students also wore the armbands out of respect for the victims at Columbine High School.

Boccia and her fellow students said they felt that the school’s policies, including speech and dress codes and random searches, would create a hostile environment in their school.

“Our client is very concerned not only that her rights have been violated, but that other students’ freedom of expression will be infringed upon by the current policies and environment existing at Allen High School,” said ACLU of Texas Regional Director Diana Philip.

The ACLU is asking the court to declare the school’s policies and actions unconstitutional, restrain school officials from enforcing the remainder of Boccia’s suspension, prohibit the school from taking any other disciplinary action against Boccia for publicly speaking about the events, and order the school to expunge the suspension from her record.

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, three days after the armbands appeared, school officials announced that if they were worn as a symbol of protest students would be suspended. The students were also told that if they continued to wear the armbands they would be given an in-school-suspension for every day they did so and, after three days of protest, they would be given out-of-school suspensions.

Boccia served one day of a three-day in-school suspension for wearing her armband the day after the official warning. She and her parents filed an appeal of the punishment on May 3, 1999, within the guidelines of the school’s Code of Conduct.

After waiting three weeks for a response from school officials, Boccia and her father took her story to the media. Principal Ira Sparks then summoned them to his office to chastise Boccia for protesting as well as for speaking with the media. Sparks said that Boccia’s record would be cleared only if she admitted she had been wrong in her conduct.

Boccia was also told that as a condition of clearing her record, she could not in the future speak to the media without first discussing with school officials what she intended to say.

As of today, school officials have yet to act on Boccia’s appeal of her suspension. Because she served only one day of her suspension, Boccia is concerned that school officials will enforce the remainder two days of her suspension when classes resume at the start of her senior year.

“The ACLU understands the current concern about minimizing violence in today’s public schools and that school officials have a duty to protect their students,” said Philip. “However, we hope that school officials will recognize that they can protect students without suspending their civil liberties.”

The ACLU said the case is reminiscent of the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, in which the Supreme Court recognized the right of public school students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.

Chief Justice Warren, in his majority opinion overturning the school district’s suspension of the students, said that “neither teachers nor students shed their rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate….In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism…School officials cannot suppress expressions of feeling with which they do not wish to contend.”

“The solution is not found by trampling on the civil liberties of those whom we seek to protect, ” said Lawrence Fischman, an ACLU volunteer cooperating attorney from the firm Glast, Phillips & Murray, P.C. “True, it’s only an armband; but, what’s next? The Allen school officials have already given us the answer: in their view they have the right not only to control what Jennifer says in school, but they also claim the right to censor what she says out of school to the media and, I presume, ultimately to anyone else.”

The case is Boccia v. Allen Independent School District.

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