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Kids, beware: Public school punishes boy for private thoughts

First Amendment Outrage

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In central Arkansas, a story is playing out that shows such a stunning lack of understanding of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech that it requires a warning label:

"Caution: The story you are about to read really is true."

The student involved in this bizarre saga, identified only as John Doe, is 14 years old and an eighth-grader at Northwood Junior High in North Little Rock. Last summer, he broke up with his girlfriend, and he vented his fury and frustration over that youthful romance in a six-page diatribe that started out as a rap song and ended up as an angry letter.

The teen-ager wrote the letter in the privacy of his bedroom. And although even the boy's defenders acknowledge that it contained statements that were "patently offensive and profane," one thing is clear: The letter represented private thoughts and was never intended to be seen by anyone, especially the former girlfriend.

Enter John Doe's supposed best friend. During an overnight visit to the Doe home, the so-called friend found the letter. He asked for a copy, and John Doe refused to give it to him. The friend then made a return visit to John Doe's home, and this time he swiped the letter, took it to school and gave it to the former girlfriend. She reported it to school officials, and the drama began.

The school principal acknowledged that the letter had been stolen from John Doe's house, but he nonetheless moved to expel the student for one semester for "terroristic threatening." However, the principal did allow the young man to attend an "alternative school" in the district for that semester so his education would not be derailed. And he told John Doe's parents they could appeal the decision to the Pulaski County Special School District School Board if they so desired.

The parents did appeal, undoubtedly thinking that the school board would recognize that their son not only did not engage in "terroristic threatening," but that the letter was clearly constitutionally protected free speech. Surprise. On Sept. 12, the school board changed the one-semester expulsion to a full year and barred young John Doe from even the alternative school, effectively denying him education for the entire 2000-2001 school year.

"Hanging apparently was too good for him," quipped Rita Sklar, executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Fortunately, the Arkansas ACLU and Little Rock attorney Morgan "Chip" Welch intervened on John Doe's behalf and went to federal court to try to get him back in school. In late September, U.S. District Judge George Howard Jr. issued a temporary restraining order against the school district prohibiting officials from expelling John Doe and ordering him back to school while the case works its way through the courts.

The judge said he was taking the action because he agreed with John Doe's attorneys the penalty posed an undue hardship on the student and that "there is a strong probability that plaintiff will succeed on the merits" when the case is finally heard in court. Sklar said she expected the hearing to be held in the next few weeks.

The ACLU suit maintains that the school principal and the school board unconstitutionally punished John Doe for the content of his private speech. "It is a bedrock principle of the First Amendment that the government may not punish a person simply because it disapproves of the person's speech," the court papers said.

"We're saying he was expelled from school improperly Ö for violating the rule of 'terroristic threatening,'" Sklar said. "We're saying the speech he engaged in was constitutionally protected. He didn't violate the rule they said he did, and punishing him for constitutional speech is a violation of his constitutional rights."

If the ACLU is successful and the federal judge makes permanent his temporary restraining order against the school district, that should be the end of the case. The school board and school principal would not be able to punish young John Doe, and the student would be able to continue his education.

But Sklar said if the court failed to overturn the expulsion or if the boy and his family experienced any type of recrimination for the incident, the ACLU wouldn't hesitate to pursue the case.

But it's still troubling that this happened in the first place. How could school officials possibly reach the conclusion that John Doe must be severely punished for the content of a note that was strictly private, written in the sanctity of his own home, just because someone stole it and shared it?

"It's scary that they (school officials) wouldn't know just by some basic instinct that you have the right to write down your thoughts in the privacy of your own room," Sklar said. "That seems to me a basic American concept that every school board and school, not to mention school administrators, should know about."

And what kind of message does it send to other schoolchildren when a student is expelled for simply expressing his own private thoughts, but another student can steal those thoughts and face no penalty?

A pretty dangerous one.

Original story

Arkansas teen accused of 'terroristic' threats challenges expulsion
Federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order allowing boy back in school pending outcome of hearing.  10.05.00

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