Update: M.A.L. vs. Kinsland

Did a bit more research on the case of a middle school student who sued his school, alleging his rights to free speech were violated … and couldn’t find much that has happened since that date. I did find a more complete explanation on Lifenews.com by David L. Hudson Jr., which clarifies what the court meant in its ruling.

A public school can prohibit a student from distributing anti-abortion leaflets in the halls in order to prevent “hallway clutter and congestion,” a unanimous three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week in M.A.L. v. Kinsland.

Apparently the issue in this case is different than Tinker, the 1969 Supreme Court ruling that found that students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam war was a clear case of the students’ right to freedom of speech – saying that the students (and staff) at schools did not lose their Constitutional rights when they crossed onto school grounds. As a result of the Tinker case, school officials can only deny student right of expression if they feel there is reasonable cause for disruption or might violate the rights of others. The armbands were passive…students wore them, but did not actively advocate protesting the war by trying to convert others.

In M.A.L., a fourteen year old student known as Michael, wanted to distribute anti-abortion leaflets in the hallways of his middle school. He won in U.S. District Court, but school principal Stephen Kinsland appealed, saying the district’s policy of allowing students to post materials such as Michael’s on bulletin boards and in the cafeteria allowed students to express their rights – that the school policy was reasonable.

According to Hudson:

…the 6th Circuit sided with the school’s arguments and found Tinker inapplicable. The panel reasoned that “there is no indication that Jefferson’s proposed time, place regulation of Michael’s speech is based on a desire to suppress Michael’s anti-abortion viewpoint.” The appeals court panel also determined that a public school hallway is not a public forum.

Michael’s attorney said that most likely this ruling would be appealed…they feel that the school was targeting the anti-abortion content of the leaflets and singling Michael out for his views.

As an educator, I understand both the right to free speech AND the need to create an atmosphere conducive to learning on a school campus. There is a fine line between total freedom (chaos) and responsible use of rights. A few years back many California schools had to handle “A Day Without Mexicans” – when Hispanics called for workers and students to abstain from going to work and school in protest of immigration laws. The fear of on-campus protests and disruption of classes caused administrators to threaten suspensions for all who participated. There were meetings with students and administrators…and in the end, the entire event was very low-key and peaceful. I had students who did not come to school that day and who walked miles to attend rallies downtown. (I also had students who simply cut school and used the day as an excuse to be truant.) The former I spoke with and gave my support.

I’m watching this case to see what repercussions come out of it – on the surface it seems reasonable…how it is interpreted and used by administrators is what concerns me.

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