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Jonathan Acklen defends students rights to free speech

The Express-Times opinion staff has awarded a turkey to the ACLU for attempting to protect the First Amendment right of Easton High School students to wear bracelets that read "I heart boobies" in support of The Keep A Breast Foundation www.keep-a-breast.org. The paper says that the ACLU argument that students have rights is "weak" because courts have regularly limited the first amendment rights of students to preserve discipline. A newspaper awarding a turkey to an organization attempting to protect the First Amendment is almost beyond comprehension. The Express-Times fails to recognize that the Supreme Court has stated time and time again that students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 339 U.S. 503 (1969). (Tinker involved the wearing of another type of arm-band, one that had the potential to cause a lot more controversy than support of breast cancer research. If you're interested, take a look at that case.)   If a teacher or administrator disagrees with the message (which I don't suppose is the case here) or the method chosen by the students to deliver that message, the appropriate response is not to simply ban the speech, but to use it as a teachable moment. Of course, that would require some effort on the part of the people in power which is clearly too much to ask when they have the option to simply ban the speech. The problem with taking the easy way out is that the students are taught that they should not have an opinion if it is one with which others may not agree. The Express-Times approval of this behavior by the administration condones unjustifiable and unconstitutional censorship. Newspapers should be defending speech, especially speech of impressionable students who must be encouraged to think for themselves and form their own opinions.   According to the Express-Times article, the school district stated that the bracelets were inappropriate and distracting to the educational purpose. However, no incidents of disruption were cited other than those caused by administrators who disagreed with the students' expression. The Supreme Court has held that "undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression." Tinker.  In fact, I would submit that potential fear of an opinion means that the opinion might actually be worth hearing and will not simply be the regurgitation of a "comfortable" position.   Even in this hyper-sensitive world we seem to live in, the Express-Times must not think that the word "boobies" is really all that bad or offensive. Nowhere in the article were symbols used to describe the wording on the bracelets. It didn't refer to the bracelets as saying "I heart b**@%#". Boobies? Really? If that is enough to cause a disturbance I question the effort of the administration to reduce disruptions. I would venture to guess that much more effort has been made toward stifling student speech because the administration is scared of students forming their own opinions.   What is most disappointing, however, is not the school district's attempt to take away the rights of the students or teach them not to think for themselves, but the support given to this position by a newspaper. I am hopeful that the students will learn to speak for themselves. I am more hopeful that the Express-Times will take another look at whose side it should be on when the issue of free speech is discussed. Of course, to "discuss" something, we must be permitted to speak and also allow those who disagree the same opportunity. Discourse: what a concept. Please pass a large helping of turkey for the Express-Times for failing to defend free speech.   Jonathan B Acklen

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