The ACLU of Kansas’s legal director is calling the Shawnee Mission School District’s recent motion to dismiss a case brought by students who say the district hindered their 1st Amendment rights during National School Walkout Day demonstrations in April “disappointing.”
“Instead of simply acknowledging their violation of student first amendment rights, the district appears to be doubling down on the mistakes they’ve made,” said ACLU of Kansas Legal Director Lauren Bonds. “We wouldn’t have even filed the lawsuit had the district simply acknowledged what they’d done wrong and changed its policy.”
The suit, filed in federal court in May, was brought on behalf of three students who say administrators attempted to censor speeches and media coverage of students protesting gun violence in schools following the murder of 14 students and three staff members at Parkland High School in February.
The ACLU had initially requested that the district acknowledge the 1st Amendment issues raised by students who said they were steered away from mentioning gun violence and school shootings during the demonstrations by taking “concrete and transparent” action to ensure such issues did not arise again. When the district failed to take action that satisfied the ACLU, the group organized the lawsuit.
District seeks to have suit thrown out
Attorneys representing the school district responded to the ACLU suit in August with a motion to dismiss the complaints, saying that the student plaintiffs had not shown sufficient evidence their rights had been infringed.
Specifically, the district’s attorneys argue that because the students were participating in school-sponsored events, the district retained some right to control what was said and done at the demonstrations.
Moreover, the district’s attorneys argue that the claim that former SM North associate principal Brock Wenciker’s confiscation of the camera of a student journalist did not constitute a violation of the Kansas Student Publications Act because the confiscation of the camera did not lead to the suppression of actual coverage of the protest:
In other words, the Act does not govern a student’s newsgathering, but rather the publication and/or suppression of publication thereof. Plaintiffs seem to acknowledge that the facts of this case do not amount to a violation of the Student Publications Act, since they allege that the confiscation “amounts to an attempt” to suppress material.” At risk of stating the obvious, an “attempt” to violate the Act is not a violation of the Act, and Plaintiffs’ claim fails on that basis alone.
In a motion responding to the request for the case to be dismissed, the student plaintiffs’ attorneys point out that the district had gone to considerable lengths to distance itself from the student demonstrations. (At SM North, for example, then-principal Dave Tappan sent a message to parents saying that the protest event “is not endorsed by the school or staff.”)
“Notwithstanding the fact that Defendants clearly did not organize, initiate, or promote the walkouts – and went to great lengths to distance themselves from the students’ planned expressions – Defendants now baldly assert that ‘there is no question that students, parents, and members of the public’ would reasonably attribute speeches to the school,” reads the ACLU’s legal memorandum. “As a matter of law, a school district cannot censor students due to the mere possibility that members of the public will incorrectly ascribe the speech to the school.”
District says it supports students’ 1st Amendment rights
Asked for comment on the district’s motion to dismiss the suit and the ACLU’s response, Shawnee Mission Chief Communications Officer David Smith offered the following statement: “The Shawnee Mission School District strongly supports the rights of all students to self-expression, as outlined in the First Amendment. The district will continue to work with staff to ensure that those rights are respected and protected.”
Bonds said the ACLU’s goal is simply to ensure students’ 1st Amendment rights are not infringed upon when they enter schools.
“We understand school administrators have a responsibility to maintain order, but those responsibilities do not extend to denying students’ rights to free speech nor restricting their freedom of press rights,” said Bonds. “Students don’t leave their first amendment rights at the school steps.”
The motion to dismiss the suit and the ACLU’s motion in opposition to dismissal are now before Judge Julie Robinson.