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Teen free speech: defending students' rights at school

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A shelf in the National Coalition Against Censorship office library, in New York City. (Annie Correal)

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Rebecca Zeidel researches cases at the National Coalition Against Censorship offices, in New York City. (Annie Correal)

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The National Coalition Against Censorship in New York City fields complaints of censorship from around the country. These files are devoted to school cases. (Annie Correal)

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Books in the National Coalition Against Censorship office library, in New York City. (Annie Correal)

When Joseph Frederick, an 18-year-old high school student, unfurled a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” along the crowded route of the 2002 Olympic torch relay in Juneau, Alaska, he may not have expected it to take him all the way to the Supreme Court. But when it got him suspended from his school, Frederick became a national figure in a First Amendment battle and a focal point for the National Coalition Against Censorship, which defends First Amendment rights.

The coalition issued an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case on behalf of 50 national nonprofit organizations and free speech advocates. The coalition argued that schools should not be able to restrict student speech when students were off campus, unless they were on field trips or school-sanctioned events. The battle over free speech is being echoed in school cases around the country.

Just in the last year, a family in California sued a high school for censuring their freshman daughter for saying, “That’s so gay.” In Indiana, two sophomores went to court after they were expelled for making a movie depicting killer teddy bears attacking a teacher. And in Virginia, a teacher who moonlighted as an abstract artist sued after he was fired for a YouTube video that depicted him making paintings with his behind.

The coalition’s executive director, Joan Bertin, says there are many more disputes that never make it to the news because they don’t reach the court system.

Every week, the coalition receives about a dozen allegations of censorship from around the country in its midtown Manhattan office, which is lined with file cabinets filled with reports of controversial art exhibits, theater productions and even scientific investigations. But according to Bertin, it’s the nation’s public high schools that are keeping her eight-person operation busy these days.

Bertin, a former public interest lawyer, estimates that more than half of the reports that come across her desk concern teens or teachers who have tested the limits of free speech and have been punished for it.

The reason the coalition sees so many school cases, Bertin says, is the growing involvement of parents and community members in the education process--particularly at the high school level.

When Bertin first took the helm of the coalition in 1997, most of the complaints she received involved middle schools. Today, the coalition is getting a significantly higher rate of complaints from high schools. Parents and community members have always felt a responsibility to monitor what their young children were exposed to at school, but Bertin says, “the age ceiling seems to be rising.”

Books are a hotly contested topic. In February, a family values group asked the principal of the Howell High School in Michigan to take four books off the 11th grade reading list. The Livingston Organization for Values in Education (LOVE) complained about sexual themes and profanity in Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and Erin Gruwell’s “The Freedom Writers Diary.”

“We are not talking about 'Catcher in the Rye' or 'Huck Finn,'” said Vicki Fyke, a founding member of LOVE. She said she was most alarmed by a child rape scene in “The Bluest Eye."

”We are talking about books that describe acts that are actually illegal,” she said.

“This stuff can change who people are,” Fyke added. “And it’s not fair for schools to have that power over children without parents knowing.”

The coalition’s first task when it receives a report that a book has been challenged is to research the case and inform the local school board of its legal obligations under the First Amendment, which safeguards the right to free speech and free expression. If a school fails to respond, the group generally contacts local reporters to generate publicity. As a last resort, the group seeks out a lawyer.

In the Michigan case, that wasn’t necessary. A few days after LOVE petitioned to remove the books, and the coalition sent a letter supporting the literary value of the works, the local school board voted 5-2 to keep the books on the shelves.

“Not one of those people voted for those books voted because they were good for children,” Fyke argued. “They voted the way they did to support their teachers.

“All this is about turf, about who has a right to decide what kids get exposed to at school," she said. “We believe we can get involved, that we can step in and say, 'This has gone too far.'”

Bertin says episodes like the one at Howell have a “chilling effect,” making educators think twice before assigning books that have caused problems in the past.

But Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, says the episode sheds light on a larger problem.

“There’s a growing conflict between parents and educators, who see schools as their private playground for indoctrination and social experimentation,” Glenn said. He believes parents and community members have a right to intervene in schools’ decision making and calls Fyke’s reaction to the reading list a “rational and moderate” response.

Bertin is quick to point out that book complaints come from “left, right and center."

The vigilance of parents and community members has made schools more cautious and quicker to react to cases, Bertin said. Recently the coalition was notified when an elementary school girl in Texarkana, Texas, was punished by school administrators for going onto a Web site at school that was deemed inappropriate because it showed nudity. The site was an online paper-dolls game.

The Internet is another hot zone for free speech debates--at all grade levels, according to Samantha Harris, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, which focuses on colleges and universities.

Popular social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace make it easier for schools to root out student bullies or kids involved in illegal activities, but free speech advocates say punishing students for online behavior amounts to censorship.

“We’ve seen a major uptick in censorship and punishment--after-the-fact censorship,” Harris said. Recently, the foundation was alerted when Sigma Chi fraternity members at Johns Hopkins University were punished for posting an invitation for a “Halloween in the Hood" party on Facebook that was filled with racial references. The fraternity was suspended and is now on probation.

Dennis O’Shea, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins, says the school does not make a practice of policing Facebook postings.

“This came to light because the Greek life adviser was aware that unsavory things can happen around Halloween, and he decided to check Facebook to make sure Greek organizations weren’t doing anything the school would object to," O’Shea said. “He found an invitation posted that any fair-minded person would find racially charged.”

Advocates like Bertin say they hope the Frederick case, which will come before the Supreme Court this spring, may help safeguard students’ free speech rights off campus, too.

“The proper response to bad speech is more speech," Bertin said, “not enforced silence.”

E-mail: ac2635@columbia.edu