Free Speech vs. Feelings= No Contest

Here’s a story I came across over at The Volokh Conspiracy:

Student’s discussion of religion with teacher leads to suspension

By The Associated Press

October 1, 2003

KINGSPORT, Tenn. – A lesson on the origin of the universe led to the suspension of an eighth-grade student who failed to follow an order to stop discussing religion with her teacher.

The situation started with a discussion of the Big-Bang theory, which says the universe originated billions of years ago in an explosion of a single, superdense atom. Students brought up Christian beliefs about the creation of the universe, and the teacher told them she couldn’t lead a religious discussion, Cline said.

The student was suspended last week after encouraging another student to put a religious pamphlet on the teacher’s desk.

“(The teacher) felt like it was a form of harassment,” Cline said. “It was hurtful to her. She’s asked them and talked with them, and after the second or third time, you know she has feelings. She is tired of kids drawing those conclusions about her.”

As Eugene said, it’s hard to know all the details from this somewhat sketchy story, but it seems like the teachers’ feelings here trump the student’s free speech. I don’t like to throw around free speech every time someone gets in trouble for being obnoxious, but beside the incredible double standard on display here, doesn’t a student have free speech rights at a public school? The article says the girl was told to stop discussing religion (how is that even legal?), and the incident that led to the suspension wasn’t even during class. How could this possibly be in the service of order in the school or anything like that? The only consideration quoted in favor of the suspension, or evident from the story, is the teacher’s feelings.

Now I’m no expert in constitutional law, or law in general, but I was always under the impression that free speech in a public forum could only be suppressed if there was a very strong public welfare consideration at stake, something on the order of yelling fire in a theater or threatening to assassinate the president. A teenage girl putting a pamphlet on a teacher’s desk just doesn’t seem to measure up.

We’ll see if the ACLU jumps to this girl’s defense.

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