High School Free-Speech Lawsuit Settled

May 30, 2008

The Student Press Law Center is reporting that a lawsuit filed by a conservative high school student over alleged free speech violations has been settled. The student, Christopher Bowler, filed suit after school administrators forced him to take down posters advertising the school’s Conservative Club. The posters contained the web address of the High School Conservative Clubs of America (HSCCA), with which this particular club was affiliated. In defending its censorship of the posters, the school argued that because the HSCCA’s website contained links to graphic pictures and videos of terrorist beheadings of Americans, the postersbecause they contained the website’s address“would be harmful to students.” Bowler argued that the school’s argument was merely pretext for censoring expression with which administrators disagreed; he said that “he heard teachers in the hallway talking about the club, saying it would spread intolerance and hatred.” Although the details of the settlement are not being reported, Bowler told SPLC that “he is happy with the settlement and views it as a victory for freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”

FIRE has seen cases similar to this one arise at colleges; a prime example that comes to mind is Gonzaga University’s attempt (until FIRE got involved) to censor a flyer advertising a speech by the author of a book entitled Why the Left Hates America. The university argued that the title of the bookwhich appeared on the flyerconstituted “hate speech.” And while FIRE does not take cases from high school students, these cases often end up being important in the university context becausesadly but not surprisinglycollege administrators use court decisions restricting speech in high schools to argue that the same restrictions should apply on college campuses. For example, in the speech codes litigation at Temple University, Temple argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in Morse v. Frederickwhich upheld a high school’s right to regulate student speech “reasonably regarded as encouraging illegal drug use”permitted Temple to broadly restrict its students’ free speech rights. And in Hosty v. Carter, the Seventh Circuit applied Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a decision limiting freedom of the press in high schools, to justify similar limitations on freedom of the press at Governors State University in Illinois. So when a case involving censorship of high school students is resolved in favor of free speech, it is good news for college students as well.

In need of First Amendment resources for teachers? The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has you covered. Our “First Things First” First Amendment textbook for college undergraduates explores the fundamentals of modern American free speech law. Meanwhile, our K-12 First Amendment curriculum modules help educators enrich and supplement their existing instruction on First Amendment and freedom of expression issues in middle and high school classrooms. Explore thefire.org for even more First Amendment educational resources.