After district drags feet in responding to walkout incidents, ACLU files federal lawsuit claiming Shawnee Mission violated students’ 1st Amendment rights

Jay Senter - May 31, 2018 11:35 am
Associate principal Brock Wenciker speaking with student protesters April 20. He removed cameras from student journalists trying to document the unauthorized gathering.

The ACLU of Kansas this morning filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three Shawnee Mission students who say the school district violated their 1st Amendment rights when it restricted the content and coverage of National School Walkout demonstrations last month.

The students — two from SM North and one from Hocker Grove Middle School — are seeking to have the court require the district to develop “training programs for administrators and teachers about students’ free-speech and free-press rights” as well as “money damages to the fullest extent compensable by law,” among other forms of relief.

“We understand school administrators have a responsibility to maintain order, but those responsibilities do not extend to denying students’ 1st Amendment rights to free speech nor restricting their freedom of press rights,” said ACLU of Kansas Legal Director Lauren Bonds. “Students don’t leave their 1st Amendment rights at the school steps.”

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The ACLU has written letters expressing concern with district policies and its response to specific incidents several times over the past two years, but this is the first time in that period it has filed a suit against Shawnee Mission.

Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick offered an apology after the walkout issues, but the district did not respond to the ACLU’s request for a detailed plan to address their 1st Amendment concerns.

The organization issued a demand letter to the district in the days following word that administrators had worked to prevent student demonstrators from mentioning gun violence and that an SM North assistant principal had removed cameras from student journalists trying to take photos of a protest gathering. The district responded to that demand letter saying it was working to investigate the claims.

In the days following the incidents, Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick said he would “take personal responsibility for some of the things that happened” and that “I will personally apologize for anything that was done to try to censor students.” But at a specially called board meeting May 7, Southwick did not acknowledge any specific violation of students’ rights and said he was focused on closing out the school year, meaning that he would not be able to complete his investigation until classes were out.

Southwick’s apparent reticence to acknowledge specific missteps by district staff was a factor in at least one of the plaintiff’s decisions to be part of the case. Grace Altenhoefen, a rising senior at SM North, said she was disappointed by Southwick’s comments at that May 7 board meeting.

“He made it very clear May 7 that it wasn’t a priority when he said nothing would happen until after the school year,” Altenhoefen said. “That’s what bothered me the most. That he wasn’t willing to take a look at this and see what happened.”

Altenhoefen said she hopes the district will take training staff on students’ rights seriously and that there will be an “admission they were wrong.”

Suit focuses on specific violations of student rights

A still image from a student’s cell phone video showing associate principal Brock Wenciker confiscating a student journalist’s camera.

In the ACLU’s petition filed in United States District Court, attorneys detail district administrators’ moves to restrict the content of students’ speech and prevent student journalists from covering an unauthorized protest.

The Hocker Grove plaintiff claims she was “interrupted and threatened with disciplinary action” when she mentioned gun violence during her speech April 20. She was then “suspended for protesting the cancellation of the event and missed two examinations,” according to the petition.

If true, that stands in direct contrast to the district’s earlier claim that “no student has or will be punished for participating in the walkouts.”

The petition also details the experiences of a SM North student journalist who said she was trying to take photographs of protestors when “a school official confiscated the camera she was using and ordered her to leave the scene of the protest, resulting in a direct prior restraint of, and retaliation for, her newsgathering activities.” The ACLU lawsuit claims that act constitutes a direct violation of the Kansas Student Publications Act.

SM North students gathered along Johnson Drive to protest April 20.

The petition zeroes in on the district’s motivations and actions in the lead up to the walkouts, noting that school officials were explicit in communicating to people who inquired that the school did not sanction the student demonstrations at the same time administrators were working to exercise control over what students could say at the event.

“In other words, while making clear to students and parents that the event was not school-sponsored speech, Defendants nonetheless made behind-the-scenes plans to impose their own content-based restriction on the protests, out of an abstract desire to avoid controversy.”

The petition also makes reference to the standards from the 1969 Tinker v Des Moines Independent Community School District case, which established precedents regarding when and where schools have the right to restrict students’ 1st Amendment rights. The petition claims the district had no legitimate reason to suspect that the mention of gun violence in the walkout speeches would disrupt the “work and discipline of the school” and that there was “no legitimate pedagogical interest in restricting students from discussing a topic of central political debate in the United States.”

The full suit document is embedded below:

Download (PDF, 359KB)

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