Free-speech experts describe Texas student-rights case as ‘Tinker revisited’

Friday, July 23, 1999

Jennifer Boccia...
Jennifer Boccia poses in front of Allen High School in Allen, Texas.

Free-speech experts say the case in Allen, Texas, in which school officials punished students for wearing black armbands to protest restrictive school policies, reminds them of a classic U.S. Supreme Court case on student expression.

Allen High School junior Jennifer Boccia, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, sued Allen Independent School District on July 21, contending school officials violated her free-expression rights when they suspended her and several others for wearing the armbands.

After last April's tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., school officials at Allen High School instituted several new security measures, including more random searches and a crack down on unorthodox student dress.

In her lawsuit, Boccia v. The Allen Independent School District, Boccia says that school officials told her that if she wanted her record cleared, she could not speak to the media.

Diana Philip, director of the Northern Region of the Texas ACLU, says that 10 Allen High School students wore the armbands for two reasons: to protest restrictive school policies after Littleton and to mourn for the victims.

According to Philip, school officials allowed armbands for three days because they thought the students wore them only to express grief for the Littleton victims. However, when school officials learned that the armbands were a symbol of protest, they cracked down on the students.

“This is an egregious form of content-based and viewpoint-based discrimination,” Philip said.

Philip and another free-speech expert say the case closely resembles the classic student free-speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist., in which public school students were suspended in 1965 for wearing black armbands to protest United States involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, writing that students did “not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

“This case [in Allen, Texas] sounds like it is as close as you could have to Tinker,” says attorney Kevin O'Shea, publisher of First Amendment Rights in Education. “If the students were protesting any kind of restraints on their rights — whether it be First Amendment free-speech rights or Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches or seizures — their expressive activity seems to fall squarely within Tinker.”

In fact, O'Shea says the student claim for free-speech protection in the Boccia case is perhaps even stronger than the speech claim in Tinker. “The political statement in this case appears to be even more compelling than in Tinker, because the students in Tinker were not directly involved in the situation they were protesting. Here, these students were protesting against restrictions of their own rights.”

Philip agrees the case is “definitely Tinker” and is another “Littleton backlash case.”

She says the circumstances in the Boccia case reflect a greater problem — “school officials' underlying fear of young people.”

The school district's attorney could not be reached for comment.