Zachary’s defeat is a loss for student’s free speech rights

Sunday, October 31, 1999

Little Zachary lost again last week.

Remember Zachary? Almost four years ago, his first-grade teacher told him that he couldn't read his favorite story to the class. Why not? Because, said the teacher, the story was from the Bible. Zachary went home hurt and upset.

After failing to work things out with the school, Zachary's parents filed suit. Last year a lower court sided with the school, ruling that the teacher had the authority to prevent Zachary from reading his story to the class. Now a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld that decision.

This small incident has created an especially painful and difficult case — painful because it involves the feelings of a little boy and his family, and difficult because it pits two important principles against one another.

On the one hand, we can all agree that teachers of young children need control over what goes on in their classrooms. As long as they have what the courts call a “legitimate pedagogical” reason for making their judgments, teachers should be supported in their decisions concerning what is taught and read in their classrooms.

But on the other hand, students — even very young students — have constitutional rights. While a public-school classroom is not a public forum where students can say or read aloud whatever they choose, as long as a student is meeting the stated requirements of a particular assignment, the teacher shouldn't be able to arbitrarily censor the student's speech — at least, not without a sound educational reason for doing so.

In my view, Zachary's case illustrates the point at which a teacher's right to control the classroom ends and a student's right to free speech begins.

Here's what happened: The teacher told the students that when they reached a certain reading level, they would be allowed to read one of their favorite stories to the entire class. Zachary qualified and brought The Beginner's Bible to school. His selection — the story of Jacob reconciling with his brother Esau — didn't even mention God. But the teacher told Zachary that he couldn't read a religious story to the class and asked him instead to read it to her outside the presence of other students.

Excluding a story from the classroom because it comes from the Bible — and for no other reason — isn't justifiable. Where's the “legitimate pedagogical concern” required by the courts? The school argued that the other students might think that the school was somehow endorsing the Bible if Zachary read the story. The school also contended that parents of students from other faiths might be offended by a reading from the Bible.

But surely a simple story about brotherly love (with no explicit religious content) wouldn't offend anyone. And surely the teacher can explain to the class that Zachary — not the teacher — selected this story to be read.

Had the story been too complex or contained material inappropriate for a first-grade classroom, then the teacher would have been justified in telling Zachary that he couldn't read it to the class.

I fully understand — and usually support — decisions by judges to defer to the judgment of educators concerning what goes on in public-school classrooms. Because I work in schools throughout the nation, I know that the vast majority of teachers are committed, caring professionals who only want what's best for their students.

But this time I am convinced that the courts have gone too far in their deference to the discretion of teachers. It doesn't erode the authority of educators to insist that they have valid educational reasons for suppressing student speech.

However Zachary's case is finally resolved (the family will appeal this latest ruling), it shouldn't be seen as a green light for banishing student religious expression from public-school classrooms.

Keep in mind that this recent ruling is very narrow. According to the court of appeals, first-grade teachers — teachers of very young children — should be given broad discretion to decide what their students should or should not be exposed to in class. Had Zachary and his classmates been older, it's likely that the outcome in this case would have been different. So this ruling hardly qualifies as a license for teachers to begin censoring the religious viewpoints of students.

The guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education are still valid: Students may express their religious views during a class discussion or as part of a written assignment, as long as such expression is relevant to the subject under consideration and meets the requirements of the assignment.