School’s handling of memorial tiles adds sadness to Columbine tragedy

Sunday, January 19, 2003

A plaque in the office of Columbine High School proclaims, “God Weeps Over Columbine.” But don’t look for “God weeps” (or any other religious message) in the school’s hallways where hundreds of painted tiles with all kinds of messages are displayed.

That’s the contradictory state of affairs at Columbine High — a confusion that last week the Supreme Court declined to disturb.

This is the sad story of how a poorly handled gesture of good will triggered a legal fight in a community that doesn’t need any more conflict or pain.

After the Columbine tragedy in 1999, the Jefferson County School District invited students and others in the community to paint 4-inch square tiles to be placed in the hallways above the 6-foot-high lockers. Although administrators had already put up various reminders of the attacks (including the office plaque), they didn’t want the tiles to be a memorial in the hallways. So guidelines were issued barring any mention of the school killings on the tiles — or any offensive or religious messages or symbols.

What were they thinking? Did the school district really believe that it could invite people to help restore the school after such a traumatic event and then edit out any reference to the tragedy itself? And couldn’t administrators have anticipated that at least some students and parents would want to express themselves in religious terms?

Lumping “offensive” speech with “religious” speech was like waving a red flag in a community where many people are deeply religious.

Not surprisingly, a group of community members — including parents of two victims — challenged the restrictions as violations of their free speech and freedom of religion. A federal judge ruled in favor of the parents, but that decision was overturned by 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal, the case is over — but the anger and division remain.

Why did the appeals court side with the school? The answer goes back to a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In Hazelwood, the high court ruled that school officials have broad powers to control expression that is school-sponsored — as long as they have a good educational reason for doing so.

Hazelwood substantially lowered protection for student expression in public schools, making it easier for administrators to censor student speech in school publications and other activities sponsored by the school. Now this decision affirms — and even extends — the authority of school officials to regulate speech in any “school-sponsored” activity.

What’s chilling about this decision is how far it goes in allowing viewpoint discrimination by the school. It’s one thing to ban all offensive speech in a hallway display (this is, after all, a public school). But it’s another to welcome a wide variety of views or expression but prohibit any and all religious messages or symbols.

True, the school has to worry about appearing to promote or endorse religion — something it may not do under the First Amendment. But the school district opened up the forum when it invited students and community members to paint the tiles for the hallways (more than 2,000 were submitted). If the school didn’t want any “religion” on the tiles, it shouldn’t have issued the invitation. Besides, the plaque in the office — which is clearly “school-sponsored” — is far closer to a First Amendment violation than a tile painted by a parent.

But wouldn’t a permanent display of painted tiles — some with religious symbols and messages — send a message of school endorsement of religion? Not necessarily. The school could put up a plaque in the hallway explaining the purpose of the tiles and clearly stating that the messages displayed are from students, parents and others in the community, not from the school. Surely people can tell the difference.

The school district may have won a victory in court, but it has lost considerable ground in the effort to bring healing and renewal to a wounded school community. Keeping a few religious symbols and messages off those little tiles in the hallways isn’t worth the cost — and shouldn’t be allowed under the First Amendment.

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