Long arm of high school censors shouldn’t reach students’ homes

Thursday, April 30, 1998

For most young people, a classroom is where they first hear about the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, they learn a different lesson when educators fail to practice what they teach.

All too often students are told the First Amendment gives them the right of free expression, but they also see how school administrators try to limit that right.

A recent example involved a 13-year-old boy from McKinney, Texas, who created a Web site that satirically made fun of Chihuahuas. The Web site — heralding the Chihuahua Haters of the World (CHOW) — was a put-on.

But it attracted the attention of a chow dog breeder who sent an e-mail to the superintendent of McKinney schools protesting the site. The administrator told the boy to remove the site from the Internet, even though it was created in the boy's home. The young man refused and was suspended for a day.

The incident was a vivid reminder of how school administrators seem to be unaware of the Constitutional rights of the students they supervise.

In Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrators can censor a high school newspaper because its primary function is as an educational tool and not as a forum for free expression.

It's quite a leap from Hazelwood to shutting down a Web site. There is no legal justification for censoring a student's expression in the privacy of his home.

Other examples of curtailed student expression:

  • An Ohio school district suspended a 16-year-old for using his home computer and personal Web site to post mildly negative comments about a teacher. A federal judge ordered the suspension lifted pending a hearing this month.
  • A Michigan high school student was suspended for wearing t-shirts bearing the names of the rock bands Korn and Tool. School officials banned the shirts after looking up the groups' lyrics on the Internet.
  • A young man was chastised by his principal, who disagreed with comments the youth had made at a public forum at the First Amendment Center. At the forum, the student questioned why the school emphasizes enforcement of a dress code. The principal said the youth should have shared his criticisms with the school instead of going public with them. The principal, who has since apologized, later told the First Amendment Center that she “told his sponsor that [the sponsor] needs to think twice about who she sends to these conferences.”

When social studies and history teachers teach the Bill of Rights in their classrooms, they would do well to ask administrators to sit in. Some lessons bear repeating.