American Civil Liberties Union Briefers ASK SYBIL LIBERTY Sybil says: SPEAK OUT! ORGANIZE!

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American Civil Liberties Union Briefers ASK SYBIL LIBERTY Sybil says: SPEAK OUT! ORGANIZE! GET INVOLVED! We spend a big part of our life in school, so . . .let's make a difference -- * join the student government * attend school board meetings * petition the school administration. * debate among yourselves ************************* YOUR RIGHT TO EXPRESS YOURSELF FREELY ************************* Students, listen up: An important part of our education is learning how to participate fully as citizens in the life of this nation. In order to participate, we need to keep in mind two very important things. First, the Constitution is the highest law of this land. Second, the Constitution has a Bill of Rights that protects the freedoms of each and every American. That includes you and me, the young people of the nation. So my message to you is KNOW YOUR RIGHTS and EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS. The First Amendment guarantees our right to free expression and free association, which means we have the right to think what we like, say what we like and write what we like; we can form clubs and organizations, and take part in demonstrations and rallies. We have the right to do all of that, not only in our homes or on the street, but also in school. Keep in mind, though, that private schools have more leeway to set their own rules on free expression than public schools do. ================================================ Sybil, you mean I can speak my mind *in school*? ================================================ SYBIL: Yes you can. You have a constitutional right to express your opinions and beliefs in school, as long as you do so in a way that doesn't disrupt classes or other school activities. If you hold a protest on the school steps and block the entrance to the building, then school officials can stop you. They can also stop you from using language that they think is "vulgar or obscene," so you'll have an easier time if you can say what you have to say without using "bad" words or sexual references. The main point is that your right to free speech is *absolute* unless the principal can prove that you are "materially and substantially" disrupting the work and routine of the school. ======================================================================== Some friends of mine and I want to hand out copies of a newspaper we put together -- our own paper. Can we do that? ======================================================================== SYBIL: You sure can. You have a right to hand out your paper, even if it contains some unpopular viewpoints, without interference from the principal or teachers. Again, the only reason school officials would be justified in stopping you is if you're disrupting school activities in a serious way. I have to tell you, though, dealing with controversial topics in the _official school paper_ can be sticky. ============================================================================= You mean if I wanted to publish an article in the school paper that calls for sex education and condom distribution, or an article on drug abuse, I might have a problem? ============================================================================= SYBIL: Right. Even though your article discusses something important that a lot of people are talking about, you might have a problem because of a decision the U.S. Supreme Court handed down in 1988. The Court ruled, in a case called _Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier_, that public school administrators can censor student speech in official school activities -- like a school play, art exhibit, newspaper or yearbook -- if the administrators think what the students are saying is "inappropriate" or "harmful." Of course, you have a right to that "inappropriate" or "harmful" viewpoint and you *can* express it, but only through unofficial channels that aren't paid for by the school -- like your own paper, leaflets or buttons that you created and paid for. As long as your expression doesn't involve school money or cause a disruption, it's okay. Fortunately, some states -- including Colorado, California, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts -- have "High School Free Expression" laws that protect students' free speech rights. Check with your local ACLU to find out if your state has such a law. ========================================================================= Suppose one of my teachers is always late to class; he makes insulting remarks to us; he's halfhearted about his work, and I don't like it. Can I write about him in the school paper? ========================================================================= SYBIL: Definitely. It's your right to criticize how the people who run your school do their jobs. But your criticism has to be responsible and not "libelous." If you print something about your teacher that you know isn't true just to make him or her look bad, that's *libel* and you could get in trouble. =================================================================== Can I wear buttons or other non-verbal symbols in school to express what I think? =================================================================== SYBIL: Yes, you can wear buttons or T-shirts with messages on them as long as they're not disruptive -- and by the way, just because someone doesn't like the message doesn't mean you're being disruptive. This right was recognized by the Supreme Court in 1969 in a case called _Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District_. In that case, the Court ruled that high school students could wear black arm bands to school to protest the Vietnam War. More recently, in 1992, a federal court ruled in favor of three California high school seniors represented by the ACLU, who were suspended for wearing gang symbols while they were being photographed for the school yearbook. The court said wearing the symbols didn't cause a major disruption and was protected by the First Amendment. ============================================================== Can I dress or wear my hair any way I want when I'm at school? ============================================================== SYBIL: That depends on the laws in your state. In some states, courts have ruled that students can wear their hair however they want as long as the hairstyle isn't a safety hazard (for example, if your hair is very long you'd have to tie it back during a science experiment). Courts in other states have allowed schools to impose hair codes, and where hair codes are permitted, so are dress codes. Some schools say they need these codes to prevent gang activity and violence. Check with your local ACLU about the laws in your state. If your school has hair and dress codes you think are unfair and you want to challenge them, just be aware that a court probably won't overturn the codes unless the judge finds that they're really unreasonable, or that they discriminate against certain students. ================================================ Can I be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance? ================================================ SYBIL: No. Some people don't want to say the Pledge on religious grounds, because they disagree with the words in some way or as a silent protest against our government's foreign or domestic policies. You have the right to sit or stand silently during the Pledge if you choose. ===================== Can I pray in school? ===================== SYBIL: Absolutely. You can pray on the school grounds as a private activity -- for example, in a classroom between classes or in the cafeteria before you eat lunch. But the Constitution forbids school officials from imposing *any* religion on students by dictating when and where they can pray, or by making prayer a part of the school curriculum. +------------------------------------------------------------+ | "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers | | shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech | | . . . at the schoolhouse gates." | | U.S. Supreme Court | | Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) | +------------------------------------------------------------+ ======================================================================== My school library doesn't have certain books because my principal thinks they're "inappropriate" for us. Is that censorship? ======================================================================== SYBIL: It's censorship if the principal's reasons for not allowing the books are "narrowly partisan or political," meaning he just doesn't agree with the authors' viewpoints. In a 1982 case called _Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico_, the Supreme Court ruled that the members of a school board couldn't remove books from a school library just because they didn't agree with their content. But in many communities around the country, school administrators and librarians are under heavy pressure from religious groups to censor what kids read and study. _I say_: No one has any business deciding what we can and cannot read. You, your teachers and the school librarian can challenge book censorship at your school in court. The freedom to read is the freedom to think. That's something worth fighting for! Your local ACLU office can answer any questions you may have about your right to freedom of expression and your other constitutional rights. To obtain a copy of _The Rights of Students_, a 181-page ACLU handbook, send name, address & check/money order for $6.95 to ACLU Dept. L, P.O. Box 794, Medford, NY 11763. A C L U Produced by the Public Education Department American Civil Liberties Union 132 West 43rd Street New York, N.Y. 10036


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