Nashville students unsure about speech rights

Thursday, April 30, 1998

Beth Franklin said she learned the price of free speech after her principal reprimanded a friend who discussed the school’s drug problems during a recent city crime commission meeting.

Franklin, a senior at Hunters Lane High School in Nashville, Tenn., said her friend, Jayah Kawa, faced undue scrutiny from teachers and students who felt he should not have publicly addressed the topic.

“They put him down so bad,” Franklin said Wednesday at the First Amendment Center’s “We Have Rights Too” roundtable discussion.

“To me he didn’t say anything wrong,” she said. “But I’m scared. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to be reprimanded.”

More than 20 student leaders of the Inter High Council, a student liaison group to the Metro Nashville Board of Education, joined First Amendment Center representatives at the gathering.

Rebekah Lorenz of Hillwood High School said the students requested the meeting because “we wanted to know how far can we go with our opinions before we face disciplinary actions.”

The request came soon after Hunters Lane Principal Julie Williams reportedly told Kawa he couldn’t represent the school anymore after he “aired the school’s dirty laundry” during a Feb. 18 city crime commission meeting. Kawa on Wednesday was elected student body president at Hunters Lane.

Jenny Reutter of Hillwood High School said she’s not scared to speak at her school. But knowing of Kawa’s circumstances, “evidently, we should all be scared.”

Asked if students enjoy fewer rights than adults, Emma May of Hume-Fogg Magnet School said: “I think it’s obvious that we do. The Constitution and its meanings change when students walk into a school. Teachers aren’t subject to the same things we are.”

First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler said when he was a student, “I never thought I had rights. My rights were what my parents and my teachers told me they were.”

But students do have rights, said First Amendment Center Executive Director Ken Paulson, even if the founding fathers weren’t thinking of 16-year-olds when they were drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Paulson and Center staff members noted the U.S. Supreme Court recognized student rights in Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969. The Tinker decision, which said students had a right to wear black arm bands to school in protest of the Vietnam War, held true for nearly 20 years.

But in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in 1988, the court set up a new standard that gave school officials room to restrict student rights if it inhibited the educational process.

“If you are being responsible and responsive and fight the good fight, you are almost always going to be upheld,” Paulson said. “If you are saying things that are respectful and are for the betterment of the school, then you are largely going to be protected, day-in, day-out.”