ACLU Defends Louisiana High School Students Blocked From Starting an ACLU Club

October 3, 2001 12:00 am

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ALEXANDRIA, LA –The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana announced today that it will sponsor a lawsuit against the Rapides Parish School Board, because it has refused for eight months to comply with the Equal Access Act regarding operation of non-curriculum clubs at Bolton High School by refusing to approve the formation of an ACLU club there.

Andy Sams, a 17-year-old senior at Bolton, has tried repeatedly without success to get his school principal, Penny Toney, to approve an ACLU Club. However, because a school staff member must volunteer to monitor a club for it to be official — and Principal Toney has made her animosity towards the club well known — staff members not wanting to incur the ill will of their supervisor have not volunteered.

“Andy Sams and his father, who serves as a plaintiff on his son’s behalf, have taken a courageous stand to remind the school board and administrators in Rapides Parish that schools may not be operated as enclaves of totalitarianism,”” said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “”We have tried to resolve this matter short of litigation and save taxpayer dollars, but a majority of the school board have turned a deaf ear.””

Acting on behalf of Andy and his father Dr. John Sams, who is also a school board member, ACLU cooperating attorney Timothy Meche tried as late as Monday to get the school board to allow the club by writing a letter to school board attorney James Downs. In the letter, Meche listed the constitutional objections that the ACLU had with the school board’s policy regarding student clubs.

Although the ACLU has no objection to a faculty monitor being present at club meetings on campus to ensure compliance with the Equal Access Act, the ACLU said that the requirement that the monitor be voluntary is damaging to clubs that are looked upon unfavorably by school supervisors.

Thus far, the rule has rendered the ACLU club at Bolton non-existent. In fact, Andy sought out several teachers to serve as advisors, and they all refused, one even stated that she could not serve “”because of the political nature of my job.””

The ACLU’s second objection arises from the requirement to publish club membership.

“”Publishing club membership casts a chilling effect that violates the spirit of the Equal Access Act,”” said Cook. “”The publishing of club members’ names is an intimidation factor that can be used to repel students who may fear offending an adult authority figure, Ms. Toney or any other teacher who may harbor animosity toward the club. Furthermore, the publishing of names may prompt resignations from the club or cause others to refrain from joining.””

Lastly, the ACLU objects to the requirement that the club must receive prior approval before meetings and publishing of the minutes. “”School officials should have some authority over the scheduling of club meetings, but only so long as that authority is exercised fairly, evenly, consistently and uncapriciously,”” Cook said.

The right to have a non-curriculum club is meaningless without the ability of its members to meet at a reasonable time and place on the school campus, he explained. Furthermore, the authority of the club monitor to exercise editorial control over the club minutes is tantamount to the exercise of censorship, which the First Amendment prohibits.

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